A few years ago, at a family wedding, I got a chance to catch up with one of my cousins. At the time, he had a daughter that was three, and another baby girl on the way. He told me about his trips to the toy store, about how his daughter would very eagerly and very naturally gravitate towards the "girl" aisle - toys and games that were stereotypically female: pink and princess.
He was concerned that what his girls were exposed to would provide them with a one-dimensional view of who they are, and in the long term, narrow their expectations of what they wanted for themselves and felt capable of achieving.
Soon after this conversation, I found myself fascinated by the difference in toys, games and media built and marketed to girls and boys - and what self-perceptions these products perpetuated.
There has been a lot of research on whether these products are shaped around the innate wants of girls, or if it is an influx of these products that continually shape what girls want - and that may be a question we never settle on an answer to. The more relevant and actionable question, however, is what alternatives we create and showcase to girls, and if these alternatives can be made as appealing and interesting as the current critical mass of choices offered to them.
In looking at what kids play with and how and what they learn from these products, I discovered more about the much discussed skills gap between girls and boys in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects.
As careers in STEM outpace job growth in all other industries, women hold only 25% of jobs in science and technology in the US, and 17% in the UK - with both figures decreasing yearly. 80% of jobs in the next decade will require significant technical skills, and from the looks of it, girls are not as prepared for this as boys.
There are a host of reasons why women choose not to go in to these careers, from gender stereotyping regarding aptitude in STEM subjects to a lack of female role models, and more.
This is one of the key reasons organisations like the Women of the Future Awards in association with Shell are important in terms of mentorship and encouraging young women in their careers. One fact I found particularly interesting, however, was that the disparity in interest and performance in STEM subjects begins as early as age nine, and sometimes even earlier.
I've recently held focus groups with ten-year-old girls in London, and spoke with them about their views on STEM, their interaction with toys, games and media, and their perceptions of their futures.
The overwhelming response from these sessions was that girls don't see any applicability of STEM subjects to their lives - they don't know when they will ever need to use a fraction, how learning about chemical compounds will contribute to their careers or if knowing anything beyond email, Facebook and Word on a computer will be required of them in their lives. In contrast, they do see utility to subjects like English and History - they relate to words and stories because they use them every day, they connect to others through them, and they play with and learn from them.
Drawing this connection between STEM skills and the toys, games and media that we expose girls to provides an opportunity to combine new learning with existing skills that girls find fun and engaging. How, for example, can we integrate storytelling with programming, to create and build a product, story or game that girls relate to and are excited about, and that offers them insight into applications of STEM?
This idea opens up a new way of promoting multi-dimensional perceptions of self and of ability. Obviously not all products can and should be built this way, but stepping in to this possibility can go a long way in how we encourage girls and create opportunities for them.
Designing a new generation of toys, games and media is not about creating an army of girls who grow up to be physicists and programmers, although this could be a welcome by-product. The goal, instead, could be to build a critical mass of girls who believe that they can do anything they want, and that feel knowledgeable, equipped and confident to choose what they want from the possibilities presented before them, both in the classroom and in the toy aisle.
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