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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There is nothing progressive about making immigrants scapegoats

Labour's so-called "moderates" are going down a dangerous path.

This is what we know about the consequence of Brexit so far: bigots have been emboldened, and racist feelings that have long been lurking under the surface of British society are out in the open. But instead of prompting a crisis of conscience among the political elite, the EU result and its violent consequences has only exacerbated their shallow but dangerous understanding of immigration and public anger.

Chuka Umunna, Stephen Kinnock and Rachel Reeves are some of the Labour MPs who been talking irresponsibly about immigration. In recent weeks these “moderates” have been calling for Labour to support “managed migration” or lamented that the party hasn’t taken a “muscular” enough stance on the subject. Shocked by the referendum result they have accepted the myth that migration undercuts wages, despite the fact that research says the contrary; and claimed that immigration causes racism, ignoring the fact that people who have experienced the highest levels of migration are the least anxious about it.

As part of his analysis of immigration, Umunna said migrants must stop leading “parallel lives” and integrate into British society. Talk of integration is so often used to attack migrants but community cohesion isn’t a one-way street. If Polish people open shops in their communities, they’re accused of taking over; if they keep to themselves, perhaps in part because of abuse they get, they’re refusing to integrate. Meanwhile English language classes remain woefully underfunded and the migration impact fund met the government’s axe back in 2010.

But there’s an ill-informed logic that you have to give way on immigration to preserve “progressive policies”. People who think this miss the point: there is nothing progressive about pandering to anti-immigration sentiment and in the process helping lay the ground for xenohpobia. The referendum result and ensuing violence was not the outcome of ignoring peoples’ so called “legitimate concerns” it was the result of politicians and the media scapegoating and demonising immigrants over the past decade.

We already know conceding ground on immigration simply gives anti-migrant politicians ammunition. Brendan Cox, whose MP wife Jo was killed in her constituency, said: “Petrified by the rise of the populists they [mainstream politicians] try to neuter them by taking their ground and aping their rhetoric. Far from closing down the debates, these steps legitimise their views, reinforce their frames and pull the debate further to the extremes.”

Labour were complicit in creating ground for xenophobia to breed. The party’s craven submission to right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric is no new phenomenon; think Ed Miliband’s “controls on immigration” mugs at the last general election. Afraid of laying out the facts and losing votes to people who feared immigration, Labour fed - instead of countered - incendiary rhetoric.

We have seen the violent and ugly consequences of what happens when anti-migrant politics is not robustly opposed. The numbers of hate crimes have surged since the referendum; people from all over the world have had abuse hurled at them and Arkadiusz Jóźwik, a man from Poland, was murdered in Harlow. This violence was not born in a vacuum, nor was it solely the result of the Leave campaign’s virulently racist message. It was produced by a lethal concoction: anti-migrant politics and a poisonous right-wing media fused with public feelings of economic and social disenfranchisement. Instead of recognising successive how government’s policies had disadvantaged large swathes of people, politicians blamed immigrants. And so where prejudice already existed, they aggravated it.

It is in this climate of misinformation and scaremongering that people form their views. Most Briton want the number of immigrants in this country to be reduced. But then in 2014 Britons on average thought 24 per cent of the population were immigrants, which was nearly twice the real figure of 13 per cent. The imagined threat that migrants pose to this country only grows with every lie Labour repeat about immigration. Treading further into this ground as Umunna, Kinnock and Reeves have done is an entirely irresponsible decision.

“If you give ground to anti-immigrant politics” Diane Abbott said, “it will sweep away all of us.” The anti-immigration feeling some Labour MPs want to capitulate to isn’t just about immigrants from Europe; it’s also about race. Post-Brexit violence didn’t only affect people from EU states; British-born people of colour were told aggressively and repeatedly that they didn’t belong. This is because anti-immigration feeling at times acts as a proxy for a resurgent national identity tied to whiteness and visible minorities are seen as the enemy within. There’s an Islamophobic strain to this. TellMama, an organisation that records anti-Muslim incidents in the UK, found attacks on Muslims they spiked days following the Brexit result – and they were directly linked to Brexit. No matter how well people of colour integrate, they are told they never quite fit - talking irresponsibly about immigration only makes this worse. Ask Nadiya Hussain; she won Bake Off, a programme that couldn’t get more British, and still she experiences racist abuse.

It is impossible to form a progressive approach to immigration while reiterating lies about people from abroad. This is an approach Labour already tried and it doesn’t work: it only feeds the flames of prejudice. The truly brave approach would be to lay out the positive case for immigration because it’s patronising to assume the electorate are incapable of listening to reason if it’s framed in the right way. In a country where migrants and people of colour are told they don’t belong, there is nothing progressive about accepting myths about immigration.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.