Why science and engineering toys aren’t for girls

Just a quick link, as readers of this blog might appreciate this article from the Guardian: “Why are so many retailers – and customers – stubbornly clinging to the notion that that young boys and girls should stick to their own, heavily stereotyped toys?” asks Andrew Holding in a guest post for the Lay Scientist.



Now that little Bobbin has finally got the hang of walking, we all toddled off to our local independent shoe shop to buy her some proper shoes: we wanted to support local businesses, we thought we’d have better choice in a non-chain shop, and we wanted to get the shoes properly fitted rather than trying to shop online. The staff were very helpful and friendly, and amazingly patient when Bobbin decided that the foot-measuring gauge was TERRIFYING and OH NOES WHY ARE YOU PUTTING MY FOOT IN A THING; the shop assistant even measured Teddy’s feet first so Bobbin could see that the gauge wasn’t going to cut her feet off or anything (we eventually managed to determine that she was a 3½G). So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the shop in question seems to stock only Start-Rite (at least for ‘first shoes’), who are very much in the pink-for-girls-and-blue-for-boys mould; the shoes we were offered for my daughter (dressed at the time in navy denim trousers and a green flowery top) gave us a choice of pink suedette moccassin-style shoes, purpley-pink mary-janes with pink flowers, or black mary-janes with little pink hearts. All very pretty, and two of the three pairs fit nicely, but… suede? Who gives a toddler suede shoes? And the mary-janes both had buckles which looked frankly flimsy: I didn’t rate their chances in the hands of a marauding monster who can shred the Guardian into ribbons in the time it takes me to drink half a cup of tepid coffee.

“They’re all a bit… pink?” I said, rather awkwardly, not wanting to be fussy after they’d been so helpful. “She doesn’t tend to wear much pink, to be honest.” The shop assistant looked a bit confused.

“Do you think perhaps we could see the boys’ shoes too?” asked my husband. “Oh! Er… yeah,” said the shop assistant, looking even more confused. She went away and came back with a pair of sturdy navy-blue shoes with a bit of red detail, and a pair of sturdy navy blue shoes with a bit of red and lighter-blue detail (ringing the changes there). It seems the boys have just as little choice, but in a different direction. Anyway, we tried them on; Bobbin seemed just as happy in navy-blue as she did in pink (to be fair, she almost certainly doesn’t care either way), clumping cheerfully up and down the shop floor; we established that there wasn’t a significant price difference, and eventually went for the plainer navy-blue pair:

Picture of my daughter's first shoes (bought from Start-Rite's range 'for boys'), sturdy navy-blue shoes with red detail.

Elmer shown for scale.

Do they look like “boys’ shoes”? Yes, but only because we now have such a ridiculously polarised idea of what “girls’ shoes” and “boys’ shoes” can look like. Here’s a selection of Start-Rite’s offerings, from their website. You don’t need me to tell you which set is allocated to which gender:

Screenshot of a grid of shoes 'for boys' from Start-Rite's website; all are brown or blue-and-red.

Shoes will be shoes

Screenshot of grid of shoes 'for girls' from Start-Rite's website. All are pink, red, or black with pink detail.

Shoes and spice and all things nice

Let’s see what they say about their shoes:

Once your little boy starts walking confidently, Start-rite has a wide range of first walking shoes in a choice of styles and colours. Start-rite shoes give protection and support and are available in whole and half sizes with different width fittings for your little boys first steps and beyond.

Our girls’ shoe collection comes in a beautiful choice of styles, colours, sizes and width fittings. All girls footwear is designed to look pretty and feel great, whatever the weather brings, for all kinds of activity. From girls pre-walker shoes to girls school shoes, out-of-school, trainers and wellies, there are Start-rite girls shoes and boots to suit every little princess.

So your boy will walk “confidently” and the shoes will give him “protection and support” (in all those rough-and-tumble things he does), while your girl (sorry, your “little princess”) will “look pretty and feel great”, and the shoes will “suit” her. (Admittedly the girls are allowed to do “all kinds of activity”, so long as they look attractive while they’re doing it.)

My daughter is not a princess. She’s a normal toddler — I would say “a normal little girl”, but her sex and/or gender really doesn’t enter into it. The things that are important in her life at the moment are: mummy; daddy; her grandparents; milk; biscuits; bananas; going on the swings and the slide; and obsessively watching and re-watching Bagpuss and Peppa Pig DVDs. Looking pretty isn’t even on her radar. To be honest, “feeling great” isn’t something she’s consciously pursuing. Owning and wearing clothes that make her look attractive (to whom?) isn’t going to make her feel “great”; as far as I can tell she’s more or less indifferent to clothes unless they’re uncomfortable (e.g. some of her bibs with velcro at the back seem to scratch her neck, and she takes them off as soon as she can) or they have something exciting like LIONS (grr!) or TIGERS (grr!) or DOGS (bow wow wow!) or CATS (meow!) printed on them.

Am I weird for being more concerned about her comfort and happiness than about her looks? If so … well, fortunately, I’m also more concerned about her comfort and happiness than I am about my weirdness. I can live with being weird.

Human tights

Here’s a new thing: tights for boys! (Of course, it’s not actually a new thing, but never mind.) There are things I really love about this: tights are really useful for babies (whatever’s in their nappy) as they’re warm and can’t be kicked off like a pair of socks; I know plenty of mums who admit half-guiltily that they dress their boy baby in tights when it’s cold, and if this stops them feeling guilty about dressing their baby in something warm and convenient then that’s great. Also, the designs of the tights are gorgeous (and not particularly pink or blue!): I actually rather wish they did the pacman ghosts design in my size.

So what’s the problem? Well, call me picky, but I don’t see why they have to be limited to boys:

“At Slugs and Snails we’re all about vibrant colours and individuality. Our tights are as bold and bright as your little boy is. They will give him freedom to bend and move, keep his legs snugly warm, and mean no more hunting for missing socks for you!”

See, my little girl is “bold and bright” too, or at least I’m hoping she’ll grow up to be both; and she’s as much of an individual as an 8-month-old baby can be (that is, slightly more individual than one commercially-available pattern selected from the four available on the site can be). She needs freedom to bend and move, she needs keeping warm, and she can kick a pair of socks off faster than you can say “Jack Robinson” (or “Jill Robinson”). I’m delighted that tights can be marketed at boys as well, but why does it have to be instead?

I can smell the chemicals

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about why girls and women are underrepresented in science subjects at school and university, and (as a result) in scientific and technological careers. (Yes, I know this sounds a bit serious; bear with me, we’ll get to mocking the stupid pink stuff in a minute.) It seems fairly clear that part of the problem is the conflict between the media image of science and the cultural expectations of girls: for lots of socio-cultural reasons that I’m not going to go into (because I want to get to the funny stuff, and other people have done the serious stuff better) science is perceived as being “for boys”: it’s seen as being too hard, or too nerdy, or too unsexy for girls. In an attempt to counter this problem, lots of of laudable initiatives have been developed to try to educate and inspire girls and women to get involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) studies and careers: from L’Oréal-UNESCO’s For Women in Science programme to STEMGirls (where girls can ask questions of real women who are working in science) to WISE (Women Into Science, Engineering and Construction) to… oh, you get the picture. However, it’s clear that the problem starts quite young… so wouldn’t it be great if there were more science-related toys for kids pitched in a way that both boys and girls could relate to?

Screenshot of Wild Science Boys' Science Kits, including Joke Soap, Weird Slime Lab, etc

Honey, I blue up the kids

Oh. But wait! It’s OK! There’s a “Girls’ Science Kits” section too!

Screenshot of Wild Science Girls' Science Kits, including Bath Bomb Factory, Beauty Salon, etc.

Pink 'Stinks'

Sigh. Yes, nearly every one of the science kits “for girls” relates to beauty products. Boys get “Hyperlauncher”, “Joke Soap”, “Perils of the Deep”, “Spooky Ice Planet”, “Weird Slime Lab”, and “Physics and Chemistry”; girls get “Amazing Crystal Lagoon”, “Aroma Art”, “Bath Bomb Factory”, “Beautiful Blob Slime”, “Beauty Salon”, “Beauty Spa Lab”, “Lip Balm Lab”, “Luxury Soap Lab”, “Magical Crystal Oasis”, “Mystic (Krazy) Crystals”, “Perfect Perfume Lab”, “Perfumed Designer” and “Snow Flake Factory”. The ones that aren’t about beauty are “magical” or “mystic”, which is surely the antithesis of science!

I do sort of see what they’re doing, but the problem is by trying to make science “girly” they’re taking all the science out of it (OK, to be fair, I’m guessing “Joke Soap” isn’t exactly going to get the Royal Society seal of approval either) and reinforcing the message that girls are only allowed to like stuff if it’s all about pinkness and pampering. (What happens when they realise that not all chemistry involves covering everything in potassium permanganate?) The fact that the science kit which is actually called “Physics & Chemistry” only appears in the boys’ section is just insulting. It’s enough to make Marie Curie turn in her grave.

While we’re on the subject, apparently even geography is too difficult for girls unless everything’s pink:

Screenshot of pink globe on WHSmith site

If all the world were glitter, and all the seas were pink

“Learn about the world and have a beautiful object for your space. This illuminated pink globe details major cities and comes in a glittered pink stand.”

I see what’s happened here, too; look at all the other globes at the bottom (“Illuminated globes bestsellers”): they’re blue, therefore they must be for boys, therefore we’ve got to provide a pink alternative for girls. THE BLUE REPRESENTS WATER. The globe looks blue because IT’S ABOUT TWO-THIRDS WATER, and WATER IS NOT PINK. The last time the world map was largely pink is probably not a time we want to look back to nostalgically… any more than we want to get all wistful for the days when the closest girls got to “science” was domestic science (cookery) or training as beauticians.

Sacré cerise

I’ve always thought of Jojo Maman Bébé as being quite classy (by which I mean “beyond my means”), so it’s depressing to see that their Christmas toy collection retreads the same old tired gender stereotypes. First, let’s have a look through the blue window:

First page of Jojo Maman Bebe's online 'toys for boys' listings: mostly toy cars, trains, tools etc.

Metro Boulot Jojo


  • Natural Train Table
  • Caterpillar Peg Puzzle
  • Caterpillar Wooden Dominos
  • Gruffalo Dominos
  • Paddington Dominos
  • Peppa Pig Dominos
  • E-Racer Le Mans Car Toy
  • E-Truck Yellow Toy
  • E-Off Roader Toy Car
  • London Classic Toy Car Set
  • Monte Carlo Classic Toy Car Set
  • Retro Wooden Toy Car Garage
  • Ever Earth Ramp Racer Toy
  • DIY Trolley
  • Ever Earth Work Bench with Tools
  • Kidcraft Waterfall Mountain Train Set and Table

So the boys get 7 car toys, 2 train toys, 2 DIY toys, and — slightly bafflingly — 5 games/puzzles. Surely dominos are about as gender-neutral as it’s possible for a toy to be? And The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo, Peppa Pig, and Paddington — when did these become “boys'” characters?

And looking through the pink window:

First page of Jojo Maman Bebe's online 'toys for girls' listings: mostly toy cookery, food, and dolls etc.

Jojo Maman Manger


  • Retro Toy Kitchen
  • Maxi Toy Cooker
  • Honey Bake Cooker
  • Petite Cuisine
  • Tasty Treats Pretend Food
  • Felt Food Sandwich Set
  • Olivia Rag Doll
  • Ben and Holly Mini Sketchy Fun
  • Ben and Holly Stick on Felts
  • Limited Edition Large Rag Doll Ivy
  • Harriet Rag Doll
  • Magic Mirror Wand
  • Fairy Skipping Rope
  • Red Toy Pram
  • Doll’s Highchair
  • Teatime Cakes Chocolate Gateau

The girls get 7 cooking/food toys, 5 doll/baby toys, a couple of crafty things, a “magic mirror wand” (file under ‘miscellaneous princess nonsense’), and a skipping rope. A Fairy Skipping Rope.

I wondered what “Mini Sketchy Fun” might entail (actually, I thought “sketchy fun” summed up the available options pretty well) so I went to have a look at the Ben and Holly thing, to find that despite being listed under “Girls” it’s actually available in pink and blue (and the blue option seems to be the default even if you click through from ‘Girls’). Does this mean a girl could actually legitimately be bought a blue toy? They’ll be wanting jobs next!

I also wondered whether actually lots of the toys were available in both categories, but as far as I can tell Mini Sketchy Fun is only in the Girls section, and the dominos do really seem to be boys-only (except the Peppa Pig ones — I suppose Peppa is pink, though, because she’s a girl a cartoon pig).

On the whole, though, it seems that girls get to pretend to cook and look after babies; boys get to pretend to drive cars and do DIY. What is this, the 1950s? I guess they do describe a couple of the toys as “Retro” (come to think of it, I had a toy garage like that as a kid), but this is getting silly. I find I’m starting to clutch at straws: the toy pram is red, not pink! One of the dolls is wearing a blue dress! The description of the staggeringly expensive train set does actually say “Great for boys and girls to play together with”!

The really aggravating thing is that on the web (unlike in a physical shop) it would be really easy for all these toys to appear in both the “Boys Toys” and “Girls Toys” [sic] sections; the lazy or unimaginative shoppers could click on the ‘right’ colour and be sure that they were getting the ‘right’ toys, but they’d be choosing from the same range either way. Sadly, though, the laziness and unimaginativeness seem to be on the other side of the counter as well.

The King’s highway

This is becoming a bit of a hobby-horse for me, so I guess this one’s quite appropriate…

As with the guitars we saw earlier, these hobby-horses remind us that “pink” is the opposite of “natural”:

Hobby-horses available in white-and-brown horse version and pink unicorn version.

Horns a-plenty

The pink ones (pink face, pink mane, pink bridle) aren’t just pink horses, though, they’re unicorns! Because only in fantasyland can girls even pretend to do anything active. Not only that, but check out those shaped eyes and long lashes: they’re sexy* unicorns!

* For “sexy” read “a bit creepy”. See also the way My Little Pony has been given a sexy toy makeover in recent years (though still not quite as bad as Struts, which thankfully seem to have died a death).