Will STEM dolls increase girls’ interest in these careers?

Earlier in the year, LEGO announced its intention to make a set of blocks based on the Women of NASA, which would be available either at the end of 2017, or in early 2018. The idea was put forward by Maia Weinstock, a science writer, as part of the Lego Ideas competition. While these will not be the first science toys targeting young girls, they certainly seem to address some of the concerns raised about them. DiscovHer discusses the issue in this week’s article.

The shortage of women in STEM careers is not news. There have been numerous historical barriers to their entry and success in these fields, including the banning of women from science courses in previous centuries, and downright plagiarism of their work in the cases where women managed to get into these fields. However, in modern times when all seems open to women, the biggest impediment to women entering STEM fields is the internalized and often subconscious sexism among parents, which is then taught to their children. If this sounds improbable, consider studies in which only 10% of girls surveyed said their parents had encouraged them to think about an engineering career, and where 57% of all girls surveyed said that girls don’t typically consider a career in STEM.

To address this problem, a number of toy companies have been manufacturing STEM dolls - dolls that come with science-themed personalities or accessories - to increase the interest in sciences among both parents and children. The dolls are also meant to encourage young girls to be more active and creative in their playtime even at a young age, just like toys typically made for boys do.

However, despite these efforts, few manufacturers have escaped criticism for their products, with some being accused of not doing enough to change the status quo. One major complaint is the attribution of physical traits that reflect neither the physicality nor the diversity of their target market. One female scientist stated that these traits would increase insecurities among young girls and create even more unrealistic notions of what they should be, in this case, not only smart, but also gorgeous. However, this opinion has been challenged by other female scientists who stated that it is important for girls to know that science and femininity are not contradictory to each other.

The second criticism falls within the concept of gender mainstreaming, and is voiced almost unanimously. Many activists and scientists alike noted the fact that these STEM dolls are primarily being marketed to girls, which solves only half the problem, since the notion that women don’t belong in science is internalized by both men and women over the course of their lives. The critics suggest that these dolls should not only be marketed to all children, but that there should also be toys showing boys in stereotypically feminine roles for balance. In addition, questions have been raised as to why manufacturers specifically market dolls, rather than chemistry sets or medical sets for instance, to girls. These issues are said to be perpetuating the implicit gender binary in career choices, which makes it so difficult for girls to envision themselves in STEM careers.

The only toy range that doesn’t seem to be coming under fire for either issue is the proposed LEGO set, since it seeks to teach children about historical female scientists and presents them in their likeness (well, as much as a LEGO set can). The set will not only provide a learning moment for parents and children, but will also be inclusive for all children, regardless of their gender and ethnicity. As Ms Weinstock stated, from a very young age, girls will learn that they too can be in STEM careers, while boys will internalize that these careers are open to anyone.

Do you think these STEM dolls will have an impact on girls’ interest in these fields? Let us know @4womeninscience

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