All toys are not born equal.
Toys are toys, not pink or blue. Whether consciously or not we foster gender bias on our children from birth. Through the clothes we dress them in to the toys they play with. The question we must ask is; how does this influence the development path they follow?
A quick search on google of typical toys for boys will reveal a wonderful basket of STEM centric toys including a myriad of learning and development activities such as lego*, robots, cars, and engines. Do the same search substituting ‘boys’ for ‘girls’ and a list of mini household cleaning items, in pink, pops up (*thanks Lego for making it possible for girls to use by producing it in pink!). While parents are being told that genders are now equal, that we can share parental responsibility, maternity/paternity leave, and career aspirations, we are giving our girls another hurdle to overcome before they aware of what lies ahead. It is worth noting that by treating our girls this way, we are teaching our boys this lesson in gender capabilities too.
This goes further than just playing with toys that define our roles as homemaker or breadwinner, the choice of toys actively gives boys a headstart in problem solving, cognitive and physical development, and the intuitive basics of STEM subjects. Over the past decade much has been written about the equality of toys for children of both sexes and the role that the selection plays in their development but the reality is that Toys ‘R’ Us, Smiths, and all of the other big names, still have a blue aisle and a pink aisle with very, very, different toys. Of course, some will read this and say triumphantly that they never treated their son any differently to their daughter, but that global businesses with extensive analysis of their target audience (buyers of gifts for children) still set out their stores this way demonstrates that we have not come far in our quest for educational equality among our children at all.
There is not a week that goes by without a major publication focussing on the lack of women in STEM related careers (*14% in Feb 2017), training, or school subjects. We celebrate the news that female coders, engineers, scientists, and those in the wider world of tech are few and far between, pushing boundaries in a ‘man’s world’. When we look at how we begin to shape our little girls, is this any surprise?
If we want to change this outcome we have to alter the ingredients.
Schools are under increasing pressure to raise the uptake of STEM subjects across the board. There is a particular interest in the female uptake, but the reality is we are not producing enough of either flavour to focus on one alone. Worryingly, in a survey conducted by Accenture earlier this year, nearly 60% of teachers admitted gender sterotyping when it came to STEM subjects and their pupils.
60% feels like a terrifyingly big number to change but determined parents will do whatever it takes to give our kids the future they deserve; right? Wrong. Sadly, 54% of pupils dropping STEM subjects cited their parents ‘advice’ to do so. In exploring this it was based on future career opportunities and the need for good results that skewed students away from ‘hard’ subjects.
Perhaps, as parents and as a wider society, we need to look at why to understand how to change it? Are we still so indoctrinated in ‘male and female’ jobs? You may not think so, but challenge yourself on what picture pops in to your head on hearing the title ‘Nurse’, ‘Doctor’, ‘Engineer’, ‘Space explorer’, and many more. We are all guilty of gender bias. We have been conditioned from birth to think this way!
So, let’s make a change! For many of us this means a critical look at the toy cupboard; wincing as we pile the lego, sticklebricks, and train sets, on one side, and the pram, baby-doll, barbie, and pony, on the other. Perhaps throwing out their favorite toys isn’t the answer but we can be a lot more selective about what else comes in. Building things together, working through experiments neither of you have ever done before, asking the same questions and developing the answers. Change it up slightly; burst open a highlighter and dilute the flower-water with it to watch the uptake of fluids travel through a petal; science can be ‘girly’ and pink, just as it can be full of blue-slime. STEM isn’t gender biased; why should we teach our kids to be?