The Trouble with GoldieBlox

Over the last few days, a little video from a company called GoldieBlox has gone viral, with headlines such as: “This Awesome Ad, Set to the Beastie Boys, Is How to Get Girls to Become Engineers” (this particular headline via Slate).   Watch the video if you haven’t already: it’s utterly charming and features a quite impressive Rube Goldberg machine.  (And watch it quickly: the Beastie Boys are not amused with the re-purposing of their song, so who knows how much longer the video will be available!)  As the video’s viral spread across the internet continued, person after person emailed me, posted it on Facebook with my name tagged, and tweeted it at me, in many cases saying things like “Hey Michelle you’ll love this!”*  Time after time, I gave my rather lukewarm answer, that yes I thought the video was cool, but that I was rather less than thrilled about gendered engineering toys, so I wasn’t a big fan of the whole thing.  It was like kicking puppies. Repeatedly kicking puppies. So I thought I’d try and compose a more thorough response, complete with alternative, non-gendered toy suggestions to try and get girls interested in engineering, a subject that seems to be consuming more and more of my time of late.

So the first part is simple: the reasons why I dislike the idea of a gendered building set being pushed at little girls, complete with pastel colours and puppies. (Again with the puppies! Who knew a post about engineering toys would involve so many puppies?) A key theme on their website that of course girls are different than boys and need different toys–their claim is that girls do not like to build without a narrative story. I’ve never seen any evidence for this myself, and the classic pre-pinkification ads from the 70s when I was a budding engineer seem more like it to me.  But hey, this is exactly the crux of the problem. Kids are different, and not just in a simple boy-girl dichotomy. The “likes a narrative story” vs “doesn’t need a narrative story” divide need not be along girl-boy lines. So my first problem with GoldieBlox is that it reinforces the idea that girls are different and need different toys. I just don’t buy it, nor do a number of campaigners with highly visible de-gendering campaigns.

My second problem with GoldieBlox is that it’s really a very limited toy. Give a kid a bucket of Legos, a set of Lincoln Logs, a model train with re-configurable track, and the kids provide their own narrative story. Or not. I personally was a terrible girl child according to the stereotypes of today. I didn’t want to make up stories, I wanted to take things apart and put them back together again. So I would rather pop off my Barbie’s head and limbs to see how they worked, or if I was leaving poor Barbie intact, I’d just change her clothes over and over again. My sister, the creative one with the head full of narrative stories, would try to help. We’d play fashion show so there was a reason for me taking Barbie’s clothes off and on over and over again. But then again, I really much preferred playing office supply store to playing Barbie dolls. Or reading. Or marking out architectural plans in a clean field of snow with my boots. Or playing math games on my Commodore 64. These were all infinitely flexible activities with many possibilities for hours of fun (yes, even office supply store), not just a story with a building set that goes with it. I’m just not buying it that a set of “Storybook, 5 animal figurines, 1 pegboard, 5 wheels, 10 axles, 5 blocks, 5 washers, 1 crank, 1 ribbon” really does have “unlimited building possibilities” as it happens.

I should point out that I am by no means the first person to have noticed this. I’ve been tweeting and posting articles such as “GoldieBlox ad perpetuates the fallacy of the pink” and “Integrity matters: offering girls real choice” over the last few days.  But so far I haven’t seen many concrete suggestions of alternatives, so I wanted to post this to mention both what I’m doing on the girls-in-engineering front and what toys I love and would recommend to anyone hoping to encourage a budding engineer of either gender.

My own outreach activities right now are focussed firmly on developing our new Cambridge chapter of the Robogals organisation. Robogals has  developed a successful model for using the (completely non-gendered) commercial Lego Mindstorms robotics kits for outreach with girls across a wide range of  ages, by tailoring activities to be simpler or more difficult depending on both the age of the girls and the length of the workshop, and including both build (Mechanical Engineering) and programming (Computer Engineering) aspects.  A critical part of their outreach work is to get student engineers to talk to the girls about what type of engineering they’re interested in, to try and encourage the students to see the breadth and depth of the profession and to hear personal stories about engineering. Since one of the key things that always comes up with girls and engineering is the lack of role models, this seems to me an ideal model for outreach.

So if I’m so down on GoldieBlox (and Lego Friends for the same gendered reasons), what alternatives do I propose?  Simple. And many.

  • My absolute favourite building kits are Lego Technic.  Every time I do a build, I learn something  new about gearing. On the shelf behind me in my study are the hovercraft, two motorcycles, a sports car and a dune buggy.  (Mechanical Engineering)
  • I also love Lego Architecture.  I’ve been trying to collect the sets of the places I’ve been.  (Structural/Architectural Engineering)
  • My new favourite at the moment is nanoblock.  They have architectural models, musical instruments, creatures, and the pieces are TINY but the finished models absolutely brilliant.  I have several completed including the Taj Mahal and the Chrysler building and am working on two others. (Structural/Architectural Engineering)
  • I’m completely in love with Snap Circuits and wish I had them when I was taking Electrical Engineering 345 at Michigan State in the 90s.  Their kit on green energy combines information and cool technology and is especially recommended.  (Electrical Engineering)
  • Molecular gastronomy kits are a fantastic way to learn about making hydrogel materials (maybe not the adult beverage kits, but certainly the food ones!) (Chemical Engineering/Materials Engineering/Bioengineering)
  • Hexbugs sets are pretty fun (again some are sitting on the desk next to me!) and this bridge set is a cool combination of several different types of engineering. (Civil Engineering/Robotics)
  • With the whole “maker movement” afoot, let’s not forget that in addition to 3D printers, a sewing machine is an excellent tool for budding engineers, from designing patterns to executing their implementation. (Manufacturing Engineering)

I could go on all day, but I won’t.  My list has been carefully selected to cover a wide range of engineering sub-disciplines and products that I have actually used myself.  (I did not include the Raspberry Pi, for example, because I don’t have one and have not yet had the chance to play with one.)  None of these toys are gendered in any way, although if you do wish to throw up your hands in despair, google “kids sewing machine” and count the number that are pink versus any other colour.  I hadn’t quite realised how progressive Osseo (Minnesota, USA)  Junior High School was in the 1980s when all students, male or female, had to do  architectural drafting and both the cooking and sewing modules. I was clearly a student in a pre-pink world. But your kids, nieces, nephews, young friends, and mentees have many options for non-gendered engineering toys, and I will continue to fight the good fight of using gender-neutral props in all of my outreach activities.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that it is NOT helpful to suggest that anything that gets more girls into engineering is  clearly a good thing. When the students arrive at University for their introductory engineering classes, they will NOT find “narrative-based” structural statics activities. When they enter the workshops, they will NOT find pink soldering irons or drills. Engineering education, and engineering as a field, is NOT gendered, even if we have unfortunately come to associate engineering with things that we do see as more “masculine” like power tools and engines. This is where the unfortunate stereotyping of what engineering IS becomes important, and the fact that some types of engineering are more prominent in the public consciousness becomes detrimental for the field as a whole. But that’s a subject for another post. For now, I hope I’ve convinced you to re-think gendered engineering toys, of which GoldieBlox, being this week’s viral video sensation, was only an example.

* Full credit to my sister, whose post read “I guess this could go both ways…” as she was the only one to have guessed correctly that I would not be a fan.

 

Engineering and Feminism

The following is my script for the brief opening comments I gave at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas event “Is it a feminist position to encourage women to work in male-dominated fields?” on Monday October 28th.

 

I did not become an engineer because I was a feminist. I became a feminist because I am an engineer.  I didn’t start out interested in, or even aware of, the whole “women in STEM” issue.  I found it when I got here.

 

I became an engineer because it was the natural choice for a kid who was interested in math and science, and it never occurred to me not to become an engineer just because I was female. In some ways I was extremely lucky—growing up with a father who worked in a technology company was a bonus, and he helped set me up with mentors from an early age.  Some reports have suggested that young engineering students in the UK overwhelmingly tend to have a parent, other close family member, or other close family friend who is an engineer.  So that’s important and gives me a clue as to where to direct my feminist activities to improving the proportion of women in STEM, and in Engineering in particular: we need to educate school-age girls about what engineering is.  Because girls who know about engineering DO become engineers. It’s not that there’s some inherent disinterest.  We just don’t tell enough young women about how great it is to have an engineering career.

 

The first time I really thought about being a female engineer—as opposed to just an engineer—was when I was applying to University, and my alma mater highlighted how great it was that they had 25% female engineering students in their undergraduate population. In the 20 years since I was an undergraduate, that percentage has remained stubbornly low, hovering between 20-25% across the US and about half that on average in the UK.   The numbers get worse as you go up in rank, with proportionally fewer women in academic posts than would be predicted from the numbers obtaining doctorates, and even fewer women in senior posts compared with junior ones.  In terms of engineers working in industry, the numbers for the UK are particularly appalling, with the engineering workforce being only 7-8% female.  That’s significantly lower than the number studying engineering at university, which helps us identify a second problem.

 

We have to ensure that the women we do train as engineers stay in the engineering workforce.  If the environment is hostile, women will leave to find other jobs.  There are four key factors that have been identified as barriers to women in their careers, in order: (1) age—early career women have a hard time; (2) lack of role models; (3) motherhood; and (4) lack of experience.  There is little we can do about age or lack of experience, but we can work seriously hard on providing appropriate role models for young women. We can also try to force institutional change regarding the return to work following maternity leave, and try and make leaving the workforce at that point a less attractive option.

 

So in terms of feminist activism, I don’t want the number of female engineers to go up because it’s seen as a feminist choice to enter a field in which we are so poorly represented.  I want the number of female engineers to go up because more girls hear about engineering when they’re young and realize what a great career it would be for them. And I want the number of female engineers to stay up because we’ve made working in engineering a happy and comfortable thing, allowing more women to have a rewarding career in the field.