Science and gender, it is an issue that comes up quite often. Complaints are often made that we don’t do enough to get girls interested in science, and that once they become scientists (or engineers) they face a host of issues their male compatriots do not have to deal with. The latter is beyond the scope of this blog, but the former issue is one that concerns us quite frequently.
Now, from purely anecdotal evidence of ‘who comes into the store’ we can certainly say as far as our visitors are concerned there doesn’t seem to be any disparity in the genders. We get as many girls as boys and if anything the girls seem more focused. However, this example merely covers children who come into the store which makes it in effect a self-selecting survey.
Outside of the store, gender bias in science enthusiasm is much more of a problem. Things have been worse in the past – times were that you would hard pressed to find any girls on the box covers of science toys at all or in the advertising. Mind you, most products these days solved the problem by not having any kids on the box cover, this has the advantage of being cheaper to photograph (no child models means no model fees) and doesn’t limit the product to just kids or a certain age of kids.
That being said, some products need models and when they are used some old sexist habits tend to crop up. Have a look at this example:
OK, so here we have a boy and girl demonstrating a popular product we actually carry. (Fun Fly Stick) Note that this image is what appears on the box. While it is good that there is a girl in the shot, you might notice she is not using the product, but merely being amazed by it as the boy plays with it. This is something of a half-step up from the past where there would have been no girl at all.
Now, it might be that this shot was simply better than ones where the girl was using the stick, and its probable that the boy couldn’t affect a look of amazement in the same way she did. But still this sort of thing starts to be accumulative. The shot was enough of an issue that on our store we used a different shot from the manufacturer. This shot was less staged and, while we didn’t choose it because of this, has a girl using the stick.
Things actually can get worse when too much effort is put into trying to get girls into science. The problem that happens most often is that science toy makers seem to think that girls actually need to be fooled into playing with science toys. So they change chemistry kits into kits where kids make their own perfume , make-up and bath balls – which on its own isn’t a bad thing, but then they change the names so that they have as little to do with science and chemistry as possible and then they dress up the box in a very heavy pink color.
Probably one of the worst offenders in this field is the Australian company Wild Science, which has already taken some flak for doing these things. A recent visit to the New York Toy Fair showed that this isn’t likely to change very much:
To their ‘credit’ some things have changed slightly, there is now a “beautiful slime” kit in a predictably pink box.
Frustratingly, Wild Science kits are very good. Before they became so gender oriented Spectrum Scientifics did carry some of their line. Sadly inventory problems and slow sales led to us dropping the line.
What concerns us is that other science toy makers seem to be following down this path. Be Amazing Toys has in the past had an excellent record of showing girls using their products as a cursory glimpse of their website shows (4 models using products, 3 are girls) but even they have started to do the make kits “aimed” at girls in the same manner as Wild Science. Future kits include : Bling My Ring, Fizzing Bath Ball, and Growing Gems. All of these kits could be good on their own but have a look at the box art:
These kits are not as bad as at least they have colors besides pink. But the copy, title and box art seem designed to fool girls into science, not to catch their interest.
So what is to be done? A few ideas:
1) Change packaging so that its not just boys playing with the toys.
2) Its OK to orient science toy packaging towards girls, but not to the extent that you are trying to hide the fact that it is a science kit. Be proud of what is going on in your kit!
3) You can aim at gender preferred science a little bit, but again do not overdo it. In general girls prefer biology and chemistry, boys prefer engineering & physics. But that is in GENERAL. Do not exclude one gender with your packaging and copy based on that generality!
4) If you must make products aimed at one gender or another, at least give both genders something interesting. Three different variations on making perfume or growing slabs shaped like hearts just isn’t interesting.
5) Do some market research with actual female scientists and figure out what would have gotten their attention as a child. They probably won’t say ‘pink packaging with smiling cartoon blond girls with pigtails holding a magic wand’.
6) While the info in #5 is crucial, remember that as children these scientists might well have played with science toys no matter how much they were not aimed at them. Make sure you are going to make your kits friendly to both genders.
7) Stop trying to fool girls into trying science. Make it so they want to do the science experiments, not that they need to be tricked into doing it.
These just scratch the surface, and in truth is nowhere near a solution by any means. But sometimes the first step to fixing a problem is to stop making the mistakes that are causing it in the first place.
Science toys and the like have come a long way, sitting next to the computer I type on is a very informative and useful book about astronomy and telescopes. But it is a product of its age (1960’s) and while it is full of illustrations, every single one with a human being is male (and a white male to boot!). In the store when we sell frog kits (which definitely grasp children’s attention for both genders) we point out to parents & grandparents who wonder at girls who are interested in the frogs that the age of Dennis the Menace grossing out Margaret with a frog he found is long gone, and that these days Margaret would probably snatch it from his hands and yell at him “you’re holding it wrong!”
But we still have a loooooong way to go.