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's nowhere to turn": What it's like to be gay and homeless

Many LGBTQ homeless people cannot ask their families for help. 

Ascania is a 41 mother with a 24 year-old son, who came to the UK from Jamaica in 2002. “I was raped at gunpoint in the area I lived in Jamaica," she says. "They’d found out in the community that I’m a lesbian. They hit the back of my head with a gun- sometimes it is still painful. I had to move from that area, then I went to another part of the island. I lived there for 18 months. People in these communities start to watch you – to see if there are men coming to see you. They begin to be suspicious. Luckily I had a chance to come to the UK before something else happened."

A friend, who was also gay, paid for a ticket for her to reach the UK. She started a relationship, and moved in with her girlfriend, but the girlfriend turned abusive. "It was a nightmare," she remembers. "It ended then I started to sofa surf. Sometimes I would go into pubs meet different girls, go back with them, and sleep over just so I had somewhere to spend the night."

Eventually, Ascania received help from St Mungo's, a homelessness charity, after the LGBT charity Stonewall put her in touch. The charity helped her get food from a food bank, and find somewhere to stay. 

While all homeless people can struggle with physical and mental challenges, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face extra stigma, discrimination, and rejection by their families.

“That’s why I think LGBTQ projects are important," says Ascania. "From being on the gay scene, I meet all these people and they don’t know about the support available. They’re out there having a really rough time. They don’t know where to turn."

She feels that in shared accommodation, people like herself can be judged for their friends. 

Homeless charities point out that transgender people are particularly at physical risk due to a lack of acceptance and are sometimes turned away from shelters.

Melissa is a trans women in her early 40s. She is now living in transgender accommodation in London provided by the charity St Mungo’s and says she is successfully engaged with drug and alcohol services and rebuilding relationships with her family.

Before beginning her transition she was married with two teenage children and had been in trouble with the police. 

She says the stress of denying her true self led to self-destructive behaviour.

She said: “I was sleeping rough, in graveyards and stairwells. In 2012 I went to prison for nine months. My probation officer put me in touch with St Mungo’s and now I have a really nice place and I hope to become a project worker with the charity. I can see a path forward.”

According to Homeless Link, a national membership charity for organisations working with people who become homeless in England, the causes of homelessness include poor and unsuitable housing, insecurity in the private rented sector, transitioning/leaving accommodation or institutions such as prison, and loss of employment. These circumstances are often coupled with mental health issues, experience of trauma, relationship breakdown, and fleeing domestic violence or abuse.

Awareness of the specific needs of LGBT homeless people is starting to enter mainstream politics. Last month, LGBT Labour passed a motion at its AGM to affiliate to the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness (LCEH). The two organisations will hold a joint event at Labour's annual conference in the autumn.

Sam Stopp, a Labour councillor in Wembley, is chair of LCEH. He said party activists launched the campaign two years ago, because they wanted to do more than talk about the problem. He said: “LGBT homelessness has some specific aspects. If your parents do not support you and you are thrown out of your home that may require a different approach to help people rebuild their lives. There’s not just an economic reason but your sexuality has closed them off.”

Stopp hopes that by aligning Labour activists with homelessness charities, his organisation will be able to provide practical support to people who need it. 

Chris Wills from LGBT Labour’s National Committee, and chair of LGBT Labour North West, said: “The homelessness crisis is worsening. I live in Manchester, where every day I see more and more people sleeping rough – and that’s just the ones we know about, let alone the “hidden homeless”, who are reliant on hostels or going from one friend’s couch to another’s floor night after night.

“This year marks fifty years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and huge advances were made for LGBT equality under Labour between 1997 and 2010. Society as a whole has become more tolerant. Yet even now, coming out as LGBT to your family can still often result in you being kicked out onto the streets, or forced to flee the family home due to verbal and physical abuse.”