Computer Engineer Barbie

December 13th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Toymakers are hoping their new products will encourage girls to investigate science and engineering, defeating gender stereotypes in the process.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

There’s a new trend in children’s toys this holiday season: empowerment. New toys for girls that promote science and engineering are garnering their fair share of praise for attempting to help girls buck gender stereotypes from a young age. But some say the toys are actually reinforcing the stereotypes that they’re trying to reverse.

In the New York Times Bits blog, Claire Cain Miller calls out a few such toys, including computer engineer Barbie; Wikki Stix, an alternative energy science kit; and The Princess Knight, a book about a princess who rescues herself (no prince required).

The new toys are certainly coming from some inspiring female role models. Roominate, a start-up founded by two female engineers with degrees from Stanford, M.I.T. and Caltech, sells kits for girls to build things as if they were design, electrical or structural engineers. Roominate’s toys have made their way onto a suggested gift list for girls compiled by The American Association of University Women, as well as the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, which includes kits for circuit board experiments, soldering and robotics.

Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that GoldieBlox, a book and toy designed by engineer Debbie Sterling to teach girls engineering principles, made the news when the company drew some fire for using a rewritten version of a Beastie Boys song in its ad campaign, the ads went viral, getting more than 7 million views in less than a week. And because the toy doesn't break with gender roles altogether (it comes in pastel colors, accompanied by pictures of happy little girls), it may be reinforcing existing stereotypes, says Lisa Wade, chair of the sociology department at Occidental College. She told Al Jazeera, “It’s not that radical, and that’s why people are loving it. There’s nothing about this toy that breaks with what we do in this country every day: model what boys do, but not break with femininity.”

And in case you’re wondering, toymakers aren’t aiming gender role-defying products only at girls. This time last year, Hasbro unveiled a gender-neutral Easy-Bake Oven, encouraging boys to get into the kitchen.

Are the new science and engineering toys for girls a good start toward defeating stereotypes, or are they not a significant enough break from established gender roles?