Since when were science toys just for boys?

Every time a girl sees a shelf of science-related toys under a sign that says "boys", she is being told that the world thinks science is not for her.

The major shortage of qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the UK means that the lack of women in STEM careers is an issue the government seem to take seriously. There have been several media articles about girls and science recently, but little attention has been paid to the messages children take in through toys. Play is the medium through which children learn about the world and imagine the possibilities open to them. Only 13 per cent of STEM employees are female, so why is it acceptable for science toys to be overwhelmingly marketed to boys?

Not long before Christmas a survey was carried out by the Let Toys Be Toys  (LTBT) campaign. Forty different UK and Ireland retail branches were visited to see how toys were being marketed. LTBT found ten times as many stores promoted toolkits to boys than to girls, construction toys were three times as likely to be promoted to boys, and twice as many stores promoted chemistry sets to boys as to girls.

One of the most gendered shops in our survey was The Entertainer, which is divided into pink  and blue sections labelled girls or boys toys. All the science toys, construction and warfare are in the boys section and the cleaning, prams, dolls, kitchens, etc are on the pink shelves. Marks and Spencer also did badly, with much of their packaging branded “Boy Stuff”. Campaigners photographed a “Boys’ Stuff” sign over shelves that included; a telescope, human skeleton, dinosaurs and globes, all of which there is no logical reason to label “boys”. This image was made into a campaign poster which went viral (see left), but has, as yet, garnered no response from M&S.

Toysellers today are sending out strongly gendered messages to an unprecedented degree. More toys are on the market than ever before and gender targeted selling is seen as profitable, but there's a high social cost.

It's hard to measure the extent to which toy marketing affects children, but we can be certain that it affects them. LTBT supporters have shared numerous stories of children who feel pressured not to play with the “wrong” toy. Despite this, we are often told that “boys and girls like different toys”. Children will actually play with anything that's presented to them as exciting, but a nature/nurture debate on gender is beside the point. There's no need to prove anything about the nature of gender to show that limiting children's access to play opportunities is damaging.

Neuroplasticity suggests that children's brains develop according to the toys they play with. Construction and science toys develop spatial and problem solving skills. If girls don't play with this type of toy then they are unlikely to be as strong as boys in this area. Recent US research found toys that are not strongly gender-typed are more likely to develop a range of skills in children.

Besides the effect on brain development there is the question of  gender stereotypes. Undoubtedly, children are heavily socialised by gender, and gendered toys can send some very limiting messages. Children don't have the reasoning powers to see through the images they're bombarded with. The UK has banned adverts for junk food to children, yet toy adverts with heavily stereotyped images continue. Car salesrooms do not have signs that say “men”, kitchen departments do not have signs that say “Women”, so why aren't  “Boy” and “Girl” toy signs seen as blatant discrimination? It would be unacceptable to specify toys by race, and it should be unacceptable to do so by gender.

LTBT's critics say parents can buy toys from any shelf. That's true, so why have them? Every time a girl sees a shelf of science related toys under a sign that says "boys", she is being told that the world thinks science is not for her. People are guided by signs and often only look in one section, so if buying in “Girls”, they are unlikely to see any science toys, unless it's one of the recent additions to the “girlie toy” canon; pink, sparkly and focused on attractiveness, like a perfume lab or make your own lip gloss kit. The connection between the toys children play with and the interests they later take up should be obvious. 

The Let Toys be Toys campaign is petitioning retailers to organise toys by theme instead of gender. Science toys aimed at boys is a small part of the picture. We want children to feel free to play with the toys they choose, instead of being told, “that's for girls” or “that's a boys’ toy”. It can only be beneficial to see the toy market opened up to all children. If even one little girl finds herself with a science kit that she wouldn't have otherwise had, it's worth it. Who knows what she might one day discover?

This article originally appeared on The F-Word

We have a problem with a lack of women following STEM careers. Photograph: Horia Varlan on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.