Newsflash: Girls like complicated toys and computer games, too!
Anyone else’s child cry over a toy this holiday? Our three kids each received a super-sized chocolate egg with a surprise toy inside. We opened them this week and, to our daughter’s dismay, the ‘girl egg’ included a princess-like figurine that only had two parts to assemble. The ‘boy eggs’ had funky monster trucks with seven pieces to connect, stickers to decorate, and a tiger that rides inside.
She honestly had tears in her eyes as she asked, “Mom, why did the boys get a cool toy and not me?”
Because, despite it being 2018, companies continue to market ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys’ and make ridiculous assumptions about how children play. In fact, the whole blue vs. pink stereotype seems to have gotten worse over the past decade – and a generation of this marketing has had serious implications for your career expectations.
A recent study compared several toy catalogues and found boys dominated the pages with cars, while girls feature more prominently with ‘domestic play’ items like kitchen sets and dolls. A four-year-old-boy quoted in the report sums it up as: “I know that’s the girls’ section because of all the pictures of girls.” That is, he didn’t think he needed to look at those toys because he didn’t see himself reflected.
So what, you might be thinking. He can still pick what he wants. Just like your daughter can just play with her brothers’ toys. Yes, that can – and did – happen, but there are serious implications to suggesting to children they should or should not be interested in certain things.
Several studies and articles have been written that look at the shift in women in post-secondary computer science programs. In the 1970s, when toy companies like LEGO featured girls and boys playing with the same ‘universal building sets,’ the number of women entering computer science was on the rise. At its height, in 1984, nearly 40 percent of students enrolled in the field were female. Then, a sharp decline began, to a point were only 12 percent of computer science students were women in 2011.
Why did an entire gender seem to lose interest in a subject that had been so popular? Marketing. Women were increasingly interested in computer science before home computers became mainstream. The peak enrollment in 1984 coincides with the first generation of people raised with home computers – computers that were mostly used for playing games and were highly marketed as something for men and boys.
Up until the 1980s, computer science professors assumed all students coming into their classrooms were new to the technology – because that had been the case. But when a generation that lived with home computers began taking classes, a lot of basic information was already known to them. Expect that was mostly true of the boys in the class, who had grown up playing the computer games marketed to them, and not so much the girls. Professors began adjusting their teachings, expecting students to have a certain background. Female students began to feel they were starting from a deficit, and enrollments began to drop.
So yes, something as seemingly silly as a ‘girl’s toy’ not having as many moving parts as the ‘boy’ equivalent can have a much larger impact than a few tears on Christmas Day. The marketing reports suggest there was less gender stereotyping in this year’s catalogues than in the past, and barely any toy store websites offer the ‘search by gender’ option button that seemed impossible to miss only a few years ago. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, those computer science enrollments will start to rise again.