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New toys engineer gender paradigm shift

Published: Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST
(Chris Walker)
Structural engineer Carol Post, principal at the Thornton Tomasetti engineering firm, speaks during a planning meeting for a hospital Dec. 12 in Lake Forest.

CHICAGO – When Liz Hletko goes toy shopping for her three children, finding just the right item for her son is a snap, while the same task for her two daughters is anything but child’s play.

“Everything that is marketed to my son calls for using his brain,” said the Evanston mother, whose kids are 7, 8 and 10. “But for my daughters? It’s all about beauty or taking care of something.”

It’s a common seasonal lament as parents of girls scour the Pepto-Bismol pink aisles in search of something that isn’t frilly or sparkly. But the issue is generating new heat, thanks to a video that went viral since it was posted on YouTube last month. It touts a line of toys called GoldieBlox that is designed to spark young girls’ interest in building and inventing. Its motto? “More than just a princess.”

Parents have embraced the GoldieBlox message of inspiring girls to enter the science, technology, engineering and math fields – or STEM, in academic parlance – turning its $30 Spinning Machine toy into a hot seller on Amazon.

GoldieBlox joins other new construction-related products aimed at girls – such as LEGO Friends and Roominate, a dollhouse with circuit boards – even as researchers try to figure out why girls are opting out of math and science careers.

While a female engineering professional crashed through the ultimate glass ceiling this week by being appointed to lead General Motors, women make up just 11 percent of working engineers, according to the National Science Foundation.

“In other countries, you don’t see this big disparity,” said Cindy Menches, an assistant professor of engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “What else could it be, but cultural differences?”

Researchers say boys and girls start out with an equal appetite for math and science, but by middle school, girls’ interest ebbs and the gender gap widens.

Women are slowly making inroads into male bastions. The dean at IIT’s Armour College of Engineering, Natacha DePaola, is a woman, along with the last three presidents of the student government association. But progress remains modest, with female students making up 24 percent of engineering majors versus 20 percent a decade earlier.

Myriad factors are likely at play, but GoldieBlox has put the spotlight on toy stereotypes. Even preschoolers quickly grasp which aisle is geared to them, child development experts say, with girls reaching for the pastel packaging of dolls, ponies, fashion and beauty make-believe while boys seek out dark hues on items with wheels, pulleys, batteries and robotics.

Debbie Sterling, GoldieBlox’s founder, said she has nothing against princesses; she just thinks they should build their own castles.

The 29-year-old started the Oakland, Calif.-based company in 2011, 6 years after graduating from Stanford University, where she was among a handful of women in engineering and product design classes. When she shared her career aspirations with her family, her mother responded, “Ew. Why?” Sterling said in a TED Talk this year.

The entrepreneur spent a year researching gender differences in toys and interviewing everyone from neuroscientists to kids, according to the company website. Girls liked building things just as much as boys, she found, but they also loved stories and characters and wanted to know the “why.” So Sterling replaced the usual step-by-step manual with a narrative relating to girls’ lives.

Hletko, a psychologist, was just relieved to see anything that points to more tool belts, less tulle. “I like that focus … that girls can make and do things,” she said.

Her GoldieBlox purchase was for 10-year-old Sofie, who wants to be an engineer and prides herself on not being “girly.” But even 7-year-old Sydney – whom her mother described as more of a “fashionista” – enjoys playing with the sets.

“[Sydney] now sees art and creativity and building as something that goes together. … I’m a big fan,” Hletko said.

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