Is STEM the New Pink?

When I was a young girl, my mother wanted me to grow up to be a nurse (“doctor” never entered the picture). Not because either of us felt any affinity for the medical profession, but because nursing was, in her mind, the better alternative to the only other field she saw as open to women: teaching.

Opportunities for women had changed dramatically, of course, by thy time I finished college and even more so by the time my son did. Yet, certain professions – specifically science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – continue to remain male-dominated, no surprise to anyone who has been reading the seemingly non-stop articles lately about the dearth of women in these fields. Some notable stats:

  • In 2013, women made up 26 percent of computing professionals, which is about the same percentage as in 1960, according to a report by the American Association of University Women.
  • They also accounted for 14 percent of all computer science graduates — down from 36 percent in 1984.
  • That same year, girls made up 18.5 percent of A.P. computer science test-takers nationwide, a slight decrease from the year before. In three states, no girls took the test at all

So it’s particularly relevant that, according to research, 90% of girls make their career decisions in seventh or eighth grade, and the key reason so many shy away from STEM careers is lack of exposure.

What interests me as a marketer specializing in children’s products is how the toy industry has responded to this gap – because, clearly, toys impact girls at a young age.

In recent years, a number of companies — many of them start-ups — have begun focusing on STEM toys for girls.

Perhaps the best known among them is GoldieBlox. A toy set that teaches girls engineering, GoldieBlox initially used Kickstarter to generate funding and interest. The product is now sold in more than 6,000 stores.

Linkitz, a company that makes interactive armbands that teach girls under eight how to code, also went the crowd-funding route.

Two sisters used Kickstarter to create iBesties – dolls that come with workbooks that teach girls about business as well as STEM subjects.

More established companies have also been getting into the act.

Last year LEGO released a line of mini-figures representing female scientists, including a chemist, paleontologist and an astronomer, and added more this year.

This summer K’NEX launched Mighty Makers, a line of story-based building sets featuring rods and connectors and following the life and career of the included figures – whose jobs range from marine biologist to mechanical engineer.

MGA Entertainment just introduced Project Mc2, a line of dolls combining fashion doll play with at-home kitchen-based experiments. The dolls are supported by a Netflix Original series that follows four super-smart, science-savvy girls who are recruited to join a spy organization.

While all of this is a good thing, in some cases such products do raise the question of whether girl-focused STEM toys are — well, too girlie, in their choice of colors and themes. I don’t pretend – as the mother of a son – to be an expert here, although my gut says: If a girl likes pink already, why not let her follow a pastel path if it leads to the right destination?