A New Feminine Aesthetic in Tech Toys for Girls
Many moons ago, I was writing design-and-build electronics projects for Make Magazine with Ariel Churi, my partner in Sparkle Labs. I approached editor Mark Frauenfelder about writing more articles that would interest girls, because as a woman, I was not really interested in most of the articles in the magazine at the time. He loved the idea.
But what exactly constitutes a girls’ article? What would make more women read the magazine and become makers?
That’s actually why we started creating educational electronics kits. We realized most of the articles and projects out in the maker community did not seem attainable for the average person, boy or girl. They were very advanced and assumed a lot of prior knowledge, which probably made them even less approachable, especially for girls. A lot of the maker community is focused on cool engineering with a very masculine look. It not only turns off girls, but also artists and designers.
Recently, there has been a wave of pink-washed engineering kits involving tiaras, dolls, and other traditionally girly things, with science lessons hidden inside them. Maybe, for people who do not see the value of STEM learning, this is one way to get the lessons into little girls’ hands. But does differentiating girls’ aesthetics just perpetuate the sexism already present in American culture?
It starts when kids are really young — there is a distinction everywhere about what is for girls and what is for boys. I worked on user experience for a large toy store in the US a few years ago. After a lot of thought and research, I decided to get rid of the “for boys” and “for girls” categories on their website. It felt dated and unnecessary to be gender exclusive when you could just sort by age and activity. But as I looked through the toy catalog, I realized that the toys now are more gender specific than they have ever been. You filter for girls and you see a nauseating sea of pink and princesses. For boys, it’s building and sports. I really feel that this sort of cultural categorization of toys and interests is keeping girls away from building and science, and keeping boys away from learning how to care for a baby or create a comfortable home.
Unfortunately, the toy company refused to implement my gender-blind navigation recommendation. I think they felt people just want to buy stuff for a girl or a boy. The companies that are creating the pink girly engineering kits obviously saw this and now their kits will come up in this glut of pink for girls. Lego even comes up in the Great Pink Sea with building sets reminiscent of Barbie’s dream house. I am not convinced this will actually impact the number of girls becoming makers and pursuing STEM careers. (Thankfully, just last week, Amazon took the boys’ and girls’ categorizations off of their homepage. It happened without much fanfare but it will be interesting to see how this impacts purchases.)
What I think would help girls get interested in making is seeing more beautiful, more approachable projects and projects created by women. There is a feminine aesthetic, but it is not about pinkness. It is about young girls seeing women happily succeeding in the STEM fields. The maker community for me has been very open and offers young girls a gateway into the STEM fields. The same way girls see Hillary Clinton running for President and think of themselves doing that some day, they can witness women involved in technical projects as an extension of what is “girly.” Making is about creating a new reality. We can do that by showing girls that pink is not the only option for them.
Let’s lead by example, not by color coding.