Science toys for girls and boys

When in Hamleys last week looking for a birthday present for one of them ickle peoples called children, I was at first a little ball of uncontrollable excitement. As my boyfriend and I took the escalator up to the shop, we were greeted with a young man playing with a foam boomerang and we got to have a shot and EVERYTHING! The Glasgow branch of Hamleys is like a dizzy reminder of the hyperactivity and excitement of being a kid again, and caught up in all the adrenaline I found my slightly overgrown eight-year-old self quite naturally bouncing over to the science-type toys. There was a really cool selection of science activity sets, from grow your own dinosaur to this projector lamp which I REALLY REALLY WANT:

Then I noticed some science toys I was not so impressed with. For those of you who are familiar with my writing and follow me on Twitter, it may be obvious just from the packaging why I had some beef with these kits.

So I’m thinking, alright. Girly science, I get it. Many people would perhaps see these kits and think there is absolutely nothing wrong with them: Bundling “science” up in a pink box with glitter and stars and making it about being pretty and smelling delightful is a GOOD THING because we are opening up science to girls, who may otherwise not be interested in science. Right? RIGHT??

WRONG. These kits are based on the assumption that girls aren’t interested in “proper” science. To say that they are positive because they encourage girls to get into science is at best naive and wrong, and at worst downright freaking patronising. Guess what guys:  Girls don’t need something to be wrapped up in pink and smelling of strawberries in order to find it interesting. Some girls might actually like the idea of science because it is COOL. It’s EXCITING. These kits feed into the gender stereotype that girls are just naturally not as good as boys at science, so they get these pretty pink down-played versions while their male counterparts are building robots.

Right, so I know many readers will be thinking something along the lines of “AHA Lauren!! These kits don’t explicitly say they are for girls. Boys can play with them too.”

Absolutely. I mean, the fact that they are drowned in pink and stars and only show little girls on the box may hint towards a gender-bias, but you are quite correct. So then I did a little investigating into Hamleys science toys via their website. And this is what I found.

Searching for “science” on the website allows you to search for a toy by gender. And as you can see, there are 48 BOY SCIENCE toys, 43 GIRL SCIENCE toys, and only 35 that are suitable for both.

The toys only recommended for girls include the culprits above and a few others like a bath bomb factory. The toys recommended only for boys (and do not appear in the “both” category) include: Hamleys Climbatron, a robot that climbs up windows, it would appear; Dinorobot: Make your own Monster; Slime Laboratory; Spy-Tech; Metal Detector; Volcano Play Set; Secret Message Kit; 4-in-1 Microscope (the girls can presumably only handle the standard microscope) and Robo Bugs.

Now please understand that my issue here is not with the “feminised” science kits. If a little girl (or boy) wants to make their own soap/perfume/beauty products, that’s absolutely fine. One Twitter user got in touch with me and said:

“don’t blame the messenger. They wouldn’t sell those kits if they didn’t believe they would make money.”

and

“If the customers don’t think there is anything wrong with them, then there is nothing wrong. People have a right to chose.”

Again, I am not blaming Hamleys or any other outlet. I’m not demanding these toys be pulled from the market. I’m simply asking why science toys are gendered at all. Why is it that, according to the Hamleys website, there are 48 science toys available to boys, 43 available to girls, and only 35 for both genders? It’s science. There really shouldn’t be a gender divide. Absolutely, the science behind making cosmetics and perfumes should be available to girls and to boys – but only if all the other science stuff like building robots and volcanoes and advanced microscopes are available to both genders, too. Yes, people do have a right to choose. But with such blatant gender biased marketing, how much of that choice is already made for children? Like I said, I am not blaming the toy shops. This is a problem in society that needs to be addressed: Science should not be split by gender and things like this are not going to equally encourage both sexes to study science.


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14 thoughts on “Science toys for girls and boys

  1. Does anyone know the history of gender specific science toys? What were the first ‘science toys’? Were they aimed at girls/boys or neither gender? Has the toy market evolved to the boy girl divide because that is what sells best, or is this just a presumption? If it is just a presumption and toys targeted at girls vs boys is really what sells best… then can you blame them? These kits exist as a product to sell, to make money…
    Question is, if attitudes changed, would that lead to more products that aren’t gender specific or is the fact that these toys exist contributing to gender divides in science?

    • psychogeek07 says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      I don’t know anything about the history of science toys etc, but it certainly is a very interesting question I’d like to look into. It’s difficult to tell whether toys like this are a product of current attitudes or if it is the other way round. I just wish that it did not have to be the case that in order to be a desirable product for girls, it has to be about appearance or beauty or all in pink. That goes for all category of toys, but science products are the ones that really get me because it is a subject that has no real reason to be gendered.

    • May I reply with complete confidence and lack of respectable data?

      Of course they were gendered from the start. They were boys’ toys. (Boy-toys in that other context not having been invented yet.)

      Working toy steam engines weren’t for *girls*. Nor were toy adding machines or microscopes or even electric trains. (Beloved toys of mine at mid-century or so) I recall being surprised at my mother’s surprise at something my cousins mentioned when they were safely grown-up: that they had always really wanted a train set, but girls didn’t ask for those things. I knew about that gender bias, and knew that it sucked, but she, good-hearted person, hadn’t realized the inhibiting effect it had had on people on who grew up to be far from conventional.

      All this was well before the pink Lego sets that set a number of people off maybe 20 years ago. ISTR my daughter’s reaction to those: she was very young, so it wasn’t unprintable, but it was eloquently negative.

      Back on topic: Naturally, some girls did penetrate the gender nonsense and get hold of such toys, and surely took a lot of !@#$ about it. And the girl-centered science toys might even have been introduced with some benign motive about making science more acessible.

      Maybe the moral is that what James Thurber said before mid-century when he re-wrote Little Red Riding Hood is still not fully achieved: “Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls as it used to be.”

    • BTW, for non-anecdotal data, one could make a bibliography of books titled “A Boy’s Book of…” or some equivalent.

  2. God almighty… this is awful. The pinky-glittery-ification of girls toys seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, and I know a few parents who just despair of the fact that everything their kid wants is pink, try to resist, but ultimately have to give in. Most odd.

  3. Lee Christie says:

    Heather, I don’t claim to know about the history of science toys, but I presume some of the first were chemistry sets, and were probably aimed at boys. This is just an educated guess.

    I’m not surprised things “aimed at girls” cropped up at some point to try to expand the market. The first marketing executive to think of that probably got a big raise. But this shouldn’t really have been necessary, and I certainly hoped that would not be necessary to continue it in 2011! Science toy makers, get it together.

  4. I think perhaps a bigger issue is that the presence of gendered toy packaging can be an indirect influence on what *parents* encourage their children to explore. These toys are generally priced out of pocket-money range: they are not being marketed to children, they are being marketed to parents. They are often also grouped together with other gendered toys, and the girly science toys (like examples above) are often lumped in with the *craft* stuff and not presented as science at all. Learn to knit, build a birdhouse, make soap in your kitchen– yay crafts! It would go a long way, I think, to present the same pink “Make your own soap kit” with other science toys/kits, positioning it as an exciting entrance into chemistry, rather than as a cute craft.

    Many parents or other relatives who would never endorse overt statements about certain types of activities being more suitable for one gender than another might still be lured by the ‘shortcut’ of gendered packaging when choosing for their own children or when dealing with an endless parade of birthday party invitations. Especially for parents who have only one gender of child in their family, they may have little occasion to go over to the ‘other’ toy section and realise that their child would enjoy many of the items there, too.

    I think that the problem is less the packaging or content of products than the way they are grouped and presented in both physical and online stores. The same products, positioned in a different way, might lead parents to make different choices about what they offer to their children, and nudge them into passing on more positive messages about how trying science is for everyone.

  5. 20tauri says:

    Great post… I remember seeing children’s telescopes and microscopes that were available in different colors and wouldn’t you know? The pink ones were the models with the lowest resolution: http://annalsofspacetime.blogspot.com/2010/02/pink-stinks.html

  6. “If the customers don’t think there is anything wrong with them, then there is nothing wrong. People have a right to chose.”

    This is such an amazingly cowardly sentence, and the point about choice is such a red herring that it makes me want to slap the person with a red herring.

    Most people have an incredibly superficial understanding of gender issues, myself included, and as such, to use the existence of a demographic willing to buy sexist tat as a gauge of what is sexist or not is just passing the buck. I’m sure loads of people would still buy golliwogs and a whole range of other offensive crap, that doesn’t mean the crap isn’t harmful or wrong.

    That’s not to say that any of these products are inherently bad in isolation, but the overall strategy of gendering beauty product et al. science kits for girls and regular science for boys is atrocious.

    AND THIS

    “don’t blame the messenger. They wouldn’t sell those kits if they didn’t believe they would make money.”

    If a company decides to sell sexist merchandise then they are endorsing the message that the merchandise sends and are actively propagating it. They are not a neutral party. You cannot absolve someone of guilt because they are only doing it for a profit motive, if anything that’s worse.

  7. shanedunn33 says:

    Great post.

    I certainly remember kids telescope and chemistry set as a kid, but have never really seen any of those before.

  8. DA says:

    Boys & girls are inherently different, not just biologically, but mentally & emotionally. We are equal of course & some boys like girls things & some girls like boy things, so there are exceptions to the “rule”, but ultimately the sexist ideas exist because boys & girls are different. I’m a girl & I’d much rather use a chemist set to make soap or make up than a bomb. My hubby would rather the opposite. If you don’t like it too bad. Blame our hormones.

    • Claire Roper says:

      Perhaps you are right and hormones are to blame. However, it would be nice if my gender non conformist son could have a make your own bath bomb kit (for example) that is not solely marketed as a girls kit. He struggles enough as it is, without every toy shop in the world enhancing his self confidence issues by constantly telling him he’s “playing with girls toys”. This argument goes just as well for any gender non conformist child.
      However, this is not the only reason that gendered science toys are bad. The subtle messages that girls receive as they grow up (i.e that science and maths are for *boys*) have an impact on the career paths that they choose.
      Hormones play a minimal role in our behaviour and development, social rules account for much larger proportions of variance in gender behaviours. As a society we have to behave responsibility for the messages we provide to our children.
      The hormone argument is weak, if you don’t believe me, try this as an example – testosterone is associated with higher rates of violence, therefore murder is a consequence of our hormones to. Don’t like it? Blame the argument.

  9. girl always like doll toys.

  10. […] know I am usually against gendered products aimed at children, but maybe Kinder have a point here. I mean, I remember being a little girl and […]

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