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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Work with us: Wellcome Scholarship at the New Statesman

Be one of our 2016 science interns.

Britain needs more great science writers – particularly from backgrounds which have been traditionally under-represented in the media.

To address this, the New Statesman and Wellcome Trust, in partnership with Creative Access, have come together to offer annual placements to student or graduates from an ethnic minority background*.

The final 2016 placement will take place this Autumn/Winter (the exact date is flexible) and will last for four weeks.

Over the course of the placement, the successful applicants will:

  • Work alongside the New Statesman web and magazine team, learning about the editorial and production process, and how articles are conceived, written, edited and laid out;
  • Undertake a data-driven journalism research project on a scientific topic, which will be published on the New Statesman website
  • Visit Parliament and learn about how science-based legislation is developed and debated in the select committee system
  • Have an opportunity to interview a leading scientist or policy-maker
  • Write a regular bylined science blog on the New Statesman website
  • Receive regular feedback and editing from the editorial team
  • Meet journalists at other titles in the sector (previous Wellcome Scholars have met writers for the Atlantic, and presenters for the BBC)

Over the course of the placement, you will be paid London living wage.

To apply for the placement, follow the steps below and apply direct to the New Statesman. 

Please write an 800-word blogpost on a recent or upcoming scientific development which you feel has the potential to change lives significantly, explaining clearly and concisely what stage the research is at, and how it is likely to proceed. It should be written as if for the NS audience - interested, intelligent laypeople.

Please also write up to 200 words on why you are right for this placement and what you would hope to get out of it. You don't need to send a CV.

Please only use Word files, or paste your text into the body of an email. 

Send your application by email to Helen Lewis (Helen @ newstatesman co uk) with the subject line “Wellcome Scholarship 2016”. 

Applications close on 30 September 2016. Interviews will take place soon after.

This is a positive action scheme under the Race Relations Act.