Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gendered Engineering Toys Part II: Goldie Blox

Last time, I introduced the idea of gendered engineering toys and feminization of engineering toys. Legos are great toys; they introduce kids to the ideas of design and building, and the more advanced toys even have motors and sensors and the ability to program so you really are building your own robots and other devices. Legos, along with other building toys, are typically considered boy's toys today. This helps to contribute to the idea that designing, building, and constructing things using your imagination are all in the realm of "things boys do" rather than "things people do" or even better for girls, "things I can do."

Enter Goldie Blox. This is a new Kickstarter campaign designed by a Standford engineer to try to fill the gap for engineering-related media to help girls realize not only that some girls are and can be engineers, but maybe even they can be engineers too. I think this is a great area that really needs to be developed. Fostering the idea that engineering and related things like science and math are possible for them to do or better yet, interesting and fun, will help more students to be open to the idea that they can and even should take the advanced classes in science and math that many avoid in high school. Taking these classes allows students to be more academically prepared for a wider range of college majors, including engineering.

A lot of research went into this toy. There's a book plus a set of building supplies based on household items that, according to the designer, should be familiar to girls. The book explains why Goldie, the main character, is building what she is building and how she goes about it, allowing the reader to play along and make the same things that Goldie is making. The books are person-oriented, all of the things she is making are to help her friends, and girls tend to be more person-oriented1. Boys who are engineers are typically thing-oriented (most interested in the workings of the objects they are dealing with), while girls tend to rate highly on both person- and thing-orientation, wanting to help people by working with other engineers to create interesting things engineers get to design and build2. They also tend to have more communal goals, wanting to build interpersonal relationships as part of a successful or enjoyable career while helping people3. These books use these ideas to craft story that Goldie found a problem that can be solved using engineering to help her friends.

However. The common objects are sewing implements - spools and ribbon. Not all girls are interested in sewing or have had any experience with spools of thread and ribbons. These items are considered feminine things, and while boys might follow media with an interesting protagonist, especially because they'd get to also build things that work, in our culture there is a definite level of derision towards things that are considered strictly feminine. The ribbon and spools of thread, especially the fact that the ribbon is pink, will turn boys off. Yes, this product is made for girls, but the idea that engineering can be for everyone, rather than the idea that girly things can also be engineering, is more important. Back to that comic from last time:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

The creator says that she went beyond the "make it pink" idea. The basic concept is a great product; the underlying research and design appeals to a broad audience (including person-oriented boys!), however the product itself suffers from a great deal of "make it pink." The main problem is that in the US today, engineering is perceived as almost exclusively for boys. There is a difference between feminizing engineering and removing the stigma that it is masculine or unfeminine. "Making it pink" is trying to feminize something that really should not be gendered. Rather than trying to feminize the kinds of things that engineers do, we should be emphasizing the factors that appeal to a broader audience, such as interdisciplinary collaboration (work with people to solve problems) and aspects of helping and care (create prostheses or everyday items that improve peoples' lives) while showing diverse types of engineers like Goldie Blox and others.

There is an argument for making a feminine version of toys like this. Some little girls will go crazy for anything pink, so a pink product will appeal greatly to them. They'll get the engineering thinking and building practice, but are more likely to reach for this toy due to its girl appeal. Some parents or other gift-givers will only buy "girl" things for girls, and so the pink ribbon around spools of thread is going to appeal to them. For general school success, a feminized role model does seem to work for girls, however a stereotypically feminine role model succeeding at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) actually made middle school girls less interested in math in studies4. Nonexclusive toys would broaden the idea of who can do engineering, math, science, and technology, while feminizing this area may have negative consequences.

Dora the Explorer on Nick Jr.
I wish that it were portrayed more like Dora the Explorer originally was - sure it's a girl as the main character, but she's doing great things with her friends that both boys and girls can enjoy, while implicitly giving the idea that girls can do this kind of thing too because she is a girl and she's doing it. Protagonists in all media are typically male, and not just male, white too. As a Hispanic female, Dora reached out to a large audience and contributed to the idea that Hispanic girls can be strong, independent explorers. This idea is important for all, not just the Hispanic girls who see the "people like me" connection, but for everyone. Stereotypes are developed by media children consume as well as socialization they have. Seeing strong women and minority characters helps children develop the idea that women and minorities can be strong, independent equals and even superiors. In a world where the majority of the media focuses on white males, both white and male are the defaults, the ones who can attain power, whether or not we overtly recognize and agree with these ideas.

IMDb Listing
In a similar vein is the book, now movie, The Hunger Games. If you've read it, you'll know that the protagonist's gender isn't revealed until you're already hooked into the story, and for some that revelation is an unexpected shock. Again, it didn't start out by jumping up and down and shouting, "Here's something for GIRLS! Girl Power! We can do what boys do too!" Rather, it is a good product for consumption by both boys and girls and has the power to implicitly change the stereotypes and ideas that are commonly held. The Hunger Games challenged a lot of these cultural stereotypes: first, that the female main character could do what she did. Secondly, and more importantly, the idea that girls will read boys' stories but boys will not read girls' stories, still taught to elementary school teachers. Thirdly, the idea, still taught to budding screenwriters, that making money in Hollywood requires male-centric plots with male main characters, mostly male secondary characters, and females can be there as love interests or as scenery. How much media have you consumed recently that passes the Bechdel test? Women are 50% of the population, why is it that women's stories are almost always considered inferior for anything but sub-genres?

Toys and media that give the idea that engineering can be "for me" for women and underrepresented minorities is important. There isn't much of that so far. This is a great step in the right direction, but in my opinion goes too far and rather than promoting inclusive ideas about engineering, excludes groups who are not white females, and could, if it became popular enough, even serve to feminize, rather than broaden, the definition of engineering. Feminizing engineering would actually do more harm than good by turning boys off from engineering. Our culture is full of stereotypes and ideas about who can or should have careers like engineering. We need to break down these stereotypes and broaden the definition, not create more walls and stereotypes.

1 Graziano, W. G., et al. (2012). "Orientations and motivations: Are you a “people person,” a “thing person,” or both?" Motivation and Emotion: 1-13.
2 Woodcock, A., et al. (2012). "Person and Thing Orientations: Psychological Correlates and Predictive Utility." Social Psychological and Personality Science.
3 Diekman, A. B., et al. (2010). "Seeking congruity between goals and roles a new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers." Psychological Science 21(8): 1051-1057.
4 Betz, D. E. and D. Sekaquaptewa (2012). "My fair physicist? Feminine math and science role models demotivate young girls." Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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