Play Stuff Blog

Examining 21st Century STEM–related Toys and their Impact on Girls

If someone asked you to name the types of toys girls played with, what would you say? Perhaps you would shout out “Barbies” or “baby dolls” or “pink cuddly toys,” right? Those types of toys have long been associated with girls, while trucks, cars, and blue toys made from hard plastic have been associated with boys. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to understand why girls are not attracted to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

When asked to state their reasons for not majoring in STEM, girls say it is due to the lack of support, lack of other females in the field, lack of encouragement and persistence, lack of confidence, and lack of ability to understand STEM concepts. One theory holds that the gap in females’ self-confidence can be closed if they are given the freedom to play with technical toys, toys usually geared towards boys. Therefore, it is important to see what toys are available to girls.

National Geographic Candy Lab play set, 2005

Studies have shown that girls and boys play differently. Other studies indicate that girls and boys receive different types of toys. Boys tend to interact with more complex toys, while girls interact with simple toys. In Jørn Martin Steenhold’s book Toys and Users, he explains that girls’ toys tend to be “cute, pretty, soft, like Mummy,” and the most popular symbols are “hearts, bows, stars, clouds, and horses,” while boys’ toys tend to be “big, strong, and tough,” and the popular symbols are “cars, guns, aeroplanes, tools, and strong men.” At the same time, “boys’ toys” have been linked with spatial abilities, abilities which are needed in certain STEM fields, such as engineering. Research has shown that children who play with certain toys, like construction sets, have better spatial skills. While girls are playing with dolls, boys are playing with toys which enhance their spatial skills.

To understand the various factors that could contribute to the underrepresentation of girls in STEM, I decided to examine examples of STEM-related toys at The Strong to understand their influence on girls’ interest in STEM. I started by examining toys made between 2002 and 2015 and a few beyond that timeframe. Of the 31 toys I initially selected, I determined that 21 were STEM-related. And I decided to explore the toys’ packaging since that is the first thing consumers see. Out of those 21 toys, only two had full face images of people on the front of the package and just one of those was a girl. Four toys had images of girls located on the back of the box. Another six toys had illustrations of cartoon girls on the front of the box. And four toys had photos of the plastic female toys on the front of the box. I judged that nine STEM-related toys seemed to be gender neutral because there was neither a female nor a male on the front of the packaging. None of the construction and engineering toys had an image of a real male or female on the front of the box. 

Teen Talk Barbie, 1993 (B.L.O. modified). Some toys, which have been considered extremely “girly” have been STEM-ified. One prime example is the Barbie Game Developer, who looks nerdy and wears clothing in gender-neutral colors. Only on the back of the package does Mattel return to Barbie-pink color to describe the role of a game developer. This doll reminded me of The Strong’s dolls from the Barbie Liberation Organization (B.L.O.). In 1993, the B.L.O. set out to highlight the issue of gender-based toys. It purposely altered the voice boxes of new talking Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe toys, “liberating” the dolls by putting male messages into the Barbie dolls and female messages into the G.I. Joes. According to a B.L.O. press release, prior to modification “these dolls were destined to indoctrinate young girls and boys into a system of beliefs that condones specific gender based behaviors.” Once the dolls were altered, text on the accompanying fliers explained that Barbie wanted to be taught math and science. If only we could find out what the B.L.O. thinks of the Barbie Game Developer!

Parents buy toys based on what they see on television, what their children see on television, what their children tell them that they want, and what they see on store shelves. Toy packages don’t explicitly state what gender can play with a toy, but it can be implied by the gender represented on the packaging or its color scheme. Knowing that construction and engineering toys tend to aid spatial ability, I’m glad to know that many construction and engineering toys came in gender neutral packaging, meaning both boys and girls are invited to play with the toys. As for the LEGO sets, they had women on the packaging to show that women too have roles in the field of STEM, albeit they are plastic looking women.

It is important for toy companies to consider their toy packaging and the message it sends to potential buyers. Girls’ play is impacted by the toys they play with, but the toys they play with and the toys their parents decide to buy for them are impacted by the packaging the toys come in.