Making a toy pink or shaped like an animal is not a sure fire way to attract young women, though the toy makers have tried. If a girl doesn’t like the toy, or if our culture tells a young female that she shouldn’t like a toy based on gender stereotypes, making assumptions on what is attractive to girls can be like making “chocolate covered broccoli.” That is what young entrepreneurs Bettina Chen, Alice Brooks and Jennifer Kessler discovered when they made a prototype race car that girls could build and decorate as an animal- it wasn’t appealing to girls.
These 3 young women are aiming to develop toys that encourage young girls to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). According to the San Francisco Chronicle (8/17/12), startup Maykah’s first toy is Roominate, a dollhouse for girls to build, from decorating it with wallpaper to installing the circuits that power the lights, fans, and door buzzer. These young entrepreneurs want to create toys similar to those that inspired them as children.
Young women are good at math and science, but they just don’t choose those technical careers at the same rate as men. Our cultural biases play a huge role in this tremendous disparity: only 1 in 10 engineers is female, & 17.8% of undergraduate degrees in engineering are awarded to women.
As a middle child between two boys, I didn’t like to play with dolls very much, but I remember feeling like I was supposed to like dolls. I remember spending more time building furniture out of foam packaging, and designing and architecting a home for the dolls than dreaming up scenarios where Ken proposes to Barbie. This new Roominate toy would have been perfect for me as a child to explore STEM in an informal learning environment, but in a context that is socially acceptable among gender norms.
Gender bias is something that is part of our culture and is not going to fade away over night. In fact, we all carry around implicit biases that inform how we look at the world and treat others. It is sad to me that our children have to negotiate these gender norms and biases at such a young age, but it is the culture we live in! Thus, I am super excited to see a company like Maykah creating toys that fit the gender stereotypes but allow girls to be “artists, engineers, architects, and visionaries!”