This morning I wrote a post about how female representation in STEM fields (which is extremely low and a popular topic for feminists and anti-feminists alike) isn't just a matter of entrance rates, but is also a matter of retention rates, and how I would like to see that highlighted more often in conversations on the topic. I tied in a reference to a commercial that had been sent to me that featured a line of toys I'd not previously heard of (in itself not a remarkable thing; I don't keep up on toy companies) called GoldieBlox. The commercial contained these lyrics (transcribed the best I can catch):
Girls!My problem was not with the commercial (which seems mostly fine to me, although I would point out that one can like princesses and maths, but I can get the point if the point is a lack of variety and options) but with the accompanying article which stated that the company's goal was to increase female representation in STEM fields -- my point regarding that was that once again we are tasking women and girls as individuals with systemic problems. The answer to how to get more women in STEM isn't to make more women interested via Cool Toys, but to make the atmosphere in STEM fields more welcoming to the women who are interested. And that means, among other things, targeting men to fix things, not little girls.
You think you know what we want, girls!
Pink and pretty: it's girls!
Just like the 50's, it's girls!
You like to buy us pink toys,
and everything else is for boys.
And you can always get us dolls,
and we'll grow up like [inaudible].
It's time to change.
We deserve to see a range.
'Cause all our toys look just the same,
and we would like to use our brains.
We are all more than princess-made.
Girls build the spaceships,
Girls that code a new app,
Girls that grow up knowing
that they can engineer that.
That's all we really need, is girls!
To bring us up to speed is girls!
Our opportunities as girls!
Don't underestimate girls!
Girls! Girls! Girls!
Girls! Girls! Girls!
What I didn't realize this morning when I was writing all this was that the toy company is actually a Kickstarter project (whoops, me) whose proposed toy is still fairly pink and very pastel (which seems kind of at odds with the marketing lyrics, so... um?) and whose founder has some things to say about about girls and women that I personally find very troubling. (incomplete transcript follows):
Hi, my name is Debbie. I'm an engineer from Stanford, and I was always bothered by how few women there were in my program. So I've decided to do something about it.The page accompanying the video also includes this:
I'm starting a toy company called GoldieBlox to get little girls to love engineering as much as I do. GoldieBlox is a book and a construction toy combined. It stars Goldie, the girl inventor, and her motley crew of friends who go on adventures and solve problems by building simple machines. As girls read along, they get to build what Goldie builds, using their tool kit.
I grew up in a small town in Rhode Island. My parents dream was for me to become an actress. They never bought me Legos; they didn't buy me K'nex or Lincoln Logs -- it didn't occur to them, or me either. These toys develop spacial skills and get kids interested in engineering and science. I didn't even know what engineering was until I was a senior in high school. So, to me, GoldieBlox really is the toy I wish I'd had growing up.
A lot of companies try to take their construction toys and make them pink to try to appeal to girls. And while, yeah, it's true: girls do like pink, I think there's a lot more to us than that. So I've spent the last year researching this: How do you get girls to like a construction toy? It all kinda came down to one simple thing: Boys like building, and girls like reading.
So I came up with a really simple idea: What if I put those two things together? Spacial plus verbal; book series plus building set.
You want your little girl to play with GoldieBlox because as much as she likes dress-up and princess stuff -- and don't get me wrong, I like that stuff too -- there's so much more to her than that. She can explore every opportunity and become anything she wants to be when she grows up.
The thing is: 89% of engineers are male. So we literally live in a man's world. Yet 50% of the population is female. So if we wanna live in a better world, we need girls building these things too, we need girls solving these problems.
So help me buy this for your daughter, your niece, your friend's daughter. Any girl you know is so much more than just a princess.
Help me build GoldieBlox so that our girls can build the future. Thanks for watching.
GoldieBlox goes beyond "making it pink" to appeal to girls. I spent a year doing in-depth research into gender differences and child development to create the concept. My big "aha"? Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters.Okay. Here's the thing, okay? I get really uncomfortable writing about individual people, especially when it's a case of less Here Is A Person Oppressing The Masses and more Here Is A Person Doin' It Wrong. I don't know Debbie Sterling from Eve, but I believe her heart is in a good place on this. And if I had kids, I'd probably buy into this set because it seems like a cool toy.
GoldieBlox is the best of both worlds: reading + building. It appeals to girls because they aren't just interested in "what" they're building...they want to know "why." Goldie's stories relate to girls' lives. The machines Goldie builds solve problems and help her friends. As girls read along, they want to be like Goldie and do what she does.
Goldie's toolkit is inspired by common household objects and craft items -- things girls are already familiar with. Plus, the set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls. Last but not least, the story of Goldie is lighthearted and humorous. It takes the intimidation factor out of engineering and makes it fun and accessible.
Point One. It's still not okay to approach the issue of women in STEM fields as a problem that can be solved entirely by women being extra-exceptional. Women are being deliberately driven out of STEM fields. And I don't mean "deliberately driven out of STEM jobs", though that is also true; I mean driven out of the field, in many cases before they ever had a job in the field. The woman who gives up fighting sexism in STEM twenty years into her career is not necessarily quitting for reasons different from the girl who gave up on STEM when she was twelve.
Making more engineering toys for girls is a good and admirable thing that should be done, but it's not going to change the fact that women are being deliberately driven out of STEM fields. Making engineering toys that parents feel comfortable buying for their girls may be arguably good and admirable (though I harbor concerns that the Pink Toy Equals Acceptable Toy can cause more harm than good, but laying that aside for the moment), but it's not going to change the fact that women are being deliberately driven out of STEM fields. The men who are sexist to me on a daily basis have, in many cases, daughters and sisters who they encourage to be engineers because the money is good and why not follow Father / Big Brother's footsteps. That doesn't stop them from being sexist assholes to non-Exceptional Women they've not made exceptions for.
That doesn't mean these toys aren't worth making. It does mean it's problematic to market them as fixing the STEM representation issue, because that marketing angle tasks women with solving a systemic problem.
Point Two. The stereotypes being espoused in this video and the related marketing materials are just reinforcing the same stereotypes that have been used to bar women from STEM fields, that are being used to drive women out of STEM fields, and that are regularly used to marginalize women in STEM fields by pushing them into communication and documentation fields (which are always lower paying, less prestigious, and more subject to lay-offs). The whole "boys build, girls read" thing is a favorite tool in the misogyny arsenal -- it is the IMMEDIATE anti-feminist response to the very problem of female representation in STEM fields: "Oh, girls don't want to go into STEM because they don't like to build!"
It's not true. But beyond that, more fundamentally, you cannot fight sexism by using sexism. You can't dismantle a patriarchal system while appealing to its foundational premises.
Point Three. This whole thing is so soaked in gender essentialism and non-threatening femininity that it genuinely concerns me. My own experiences in STEM is that one way to avoid appearing threatening is to embrace full girly-girl in the hopes that male colleagues won't target you as much. (This doesn't really work, of course, because you can't win at patriarchy. But sometimes it can lessen the shit thrown at you in the short term.)
I'm 100% with women who like pink and princesses; I'm completely down with that. But that's not what this video is saying: it's one-part assuring men that all girls love pink and dresses and princesses and dress-up and have poor spacial skills and one-part scolding women that that's not good enough, that we need to be "more than just a princess" and that it's up to us to make sure that this isn't "literally a man's world". So there's this horrible double-whammy of telling girls that (a) you much be super-femme to be acceptable, but (b) you must also be STEMy to be valuable.
(And, then, of course, a lot of corollary bullshit about how boys, on the flip side, are good at spacial relationships and bad at reading, which NOPE! And which doesn't even get into all the problems I have with binary gendering and gender essentialism in the first place, all of which are VERY BIG PROBLEMS because all that erases huge swaths of people who don't happen to conform for whatever reason.)
That's not dismantling patriarchy. That's propping up the Exceptional Woman as something that we have a duty to be. We can't be butch or boyish or unfeminine because how weird would that be, if we asked for non-pink toys, but also we'd be faint copies of something better since our lady-heads can't do spacial rotations anyway. And this is precisely how women are marginalized in STEM today: we're unfailingly seen as unfeminine (and therefore threatening) until we magically become too feminine (and therefore silly and not worth paying attention to).
There is literally no way to win in this framework, and reinforcing that with Boys Are From Mars, Girls Are From Venus gender essentialism just reinforces that. It's problematic in the extreme, and it's a problem that sort of seeps out of the frankly contradictory marketing where the music video is all ICKY PINK THINGS and the Kickstarter video is all PINK INNATELY APPEALS TO GIRLS and also it's bad to like princesses because we need to be more than that, yo, but it's still important to like dress-up because girls love stories and characters because of our lady-feels.
I don't really blame Ms. Sterling for maybe not navigating this very well; I've lived a whole lifetime of not navigating this very well. But as much as I wish her well, that doesn't make this marketing campaign any less painful for me to watch.