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.

 

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28 thoughts on “The Trouble with GoldieBlox

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful critique of GoldieBlox. I was going to ask if you thought these toys had merit as launching points to get girls interested in the non-gendered toys such as those on your list, but you anticipated this question with your last paragraph, i.e. “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.”

    I’m sure it’s a tough situation for independent toy designers who are interested in attracting girls to science- or engineering-based toys because they are fighting the colossus of the gendered toy market. I would love to see toys like Lego freed from the grip of the “boys” area of the toy section. I guess a good way to move this forward is to check out your list when I do my Christmas shopping. Thanks again!

  2. We have a Goldieblox set and a 5-year-old. While I would not characterize the building possibilities as “unlimited”, the set is (I think) designed for further experimentation past the initial set up.

    P.S. Thank you so much for the list of toys. Very helpful.

  3. I’m with you. All that stuff about how girls play doesn’t sound remotely familiar to me. I liked the video, but I couldn’t identify with any of it. I grew up playing with my brother and boy cousins so the single-gender activity was odd to me by itself.

    We didn’t play with toys, we mostly made things. My brother’s balsa airplanes came in a kit, but tree houses and tin canoes didn’t. The only girl toy I remember having was a stuffed rabbit with a wind-up music box inside. It was perfect for me because all I had to do to play with it properly was wind it up and go to sleep.

    One Christmas my grandmother made a four poster bed and knit a sweater for my baby doll. I don’t remember the baby doll, but I remember my grandmother with her band saw on the front porch making furniture. The result of the baby doll sweater was not me playing with a baby doll, it was me forcing my grandmother to teach me to knit at about 5 years old.

    I guess my suggestion for non-gendered Christmas gifts then is to stop shopping and make something by hand to give the children in your life.

    • My Grandmother taught me to crochet when I was about 9, and at the time she was making full-sized blankets for her own kids and she helped me make a tiny blanket for my cabbage patch kid. It changed my life, and I still make hand-crocheted blankets for my friends’ babies and for gifts for other friends. I wish I could recall where I recently read that we should stop thinking of engineering as being different from the crafts/maker movement, as the two are one and the same!

  4. Thank you for your thorough review of why you kick puppies – err – don’t jive with the “narrative play” of Goldieblox toys. Like you I grew up in the 70s and my “pre-pinkified” toys that encouraged me to build things were Meccano ( http://www.meccano.com/ ) and Lego. My daughter has Lego mindstorm and minecraft as her favorites.
    I don’t like kicking puppies either, and it wasn’t at all impressed with Goldieblox *because* it was pinkified, implying once more that girls need special toys. I could see this as a why of getting “old fashioned grandparents” to buy this, maybe, but our parents bought us pre-pink toys. Now that Goldieblox have preemptivly sued the artists in Beastie Boys for their right to use their song – unlicensed – in a commercials for toys, without ever asking for permission. Infringement does not suddenly become OK because people agree with the political posturing the Goldieblox toy is fulfilling. It’s a for profit commercial. It’ selling pink plastic bits. It can pay the artists for the song license.

    I’ve shared your great list of alternatives and hope parents & freinds of budding engineers find it useful for their holiday gifting plans.

  5. Great post! I had mixed feelings about the ad. I certainly see the value in emphasising to young girls that they can be / should be interested in building and engineering, but also don’t see why it needs to be ‘different’ than the boys toys.

    I would add that as a girl who liked nothing more than building Legos or making forts together with others (mainly boys, as most of my early friends were), I worry that these gender-specific toys might be hindering these types of early male-female collaborations.

  6. Thanks for the blog. I was about to write a blog with the same view when I came across yours, and since you described the issues so well there was no point for me to write another one. Instead, I would like to share your blog with my readers and mailing list, I hope that is ok. I agree re the scientific evidence on girls like narrative. It goes back to the nature versus nurture debate, and so far, I think the evidence in favour of nature is underwhelming. From my own experiences, I grew up with two sisters. My dad who loved playing with Lego as much as we did, gave us building competitions where we were given a building assignment. e.g. a station, an appartment block, a windmill… We were all extremely competitive about these games, and spent whole days building our assigned building. The fun was in the building competition, we never attempted to use the building for play afterwards. My 3.5 year old boy on the other hand, only plays if there is a narrative involved. I am constantly trying to get him interested in Duplo Lego, but only manage if we build something that has a purpose, e.g. a house for his doll or dog, animals we can play with. Every individual is different, and we are not being helpful to girls (and boys) by stereotyping, which is exactly what Goldiebox is doing.
    It worries me that popular belief is now completely in favour of girls and boys’ inherent differences, even amongst girls and women working in male dominated industries, such as engineering. I was at the WES student conference last weekend where I was talking to an impressive young engineer who is developing engineering toys for girls as well. When I challenged her about Goldieblox, she quickly interrupted, and told me: “No, the science is overwhelming, girls need a narrative. I have spent 3 months researching this.” Again, I acknowledge that the research exists, but the research coming to the opposite conclusion exists as well. We should be aware of confirmation bias in science and research.

  7. I agree that gendered toys are not ideal, and we should be careful to promote them. I see a lot of people saying they grew up playing with gender neutral construction toys, or that they didn’t need a narrative to get into a toy. This is also my experience, and my instinct is to agree with you all – this was how I grew up, I’m a STEM person, therefore that worked.

    However, I have decided this is missing the point. WE are not the target audience. We are already reading an engineering blog. We don’t need narrative to interest us. We have already been raised in a way that let us play with toys whether they are pink or blue or orange or whatever. We don’t really understand the families or the girls that these products are for. Therefore it’s natural for us to react against these toys, for all the reasons stated.

    Toys like GoldieBlox, Roominate, Lego Friends etc are not *for* the children we were 20+ years ago, they are for little girls NOW; little girls who are being told that they should only choose pink toys, toys with stories, toys “for girls”. They are also for the parents – bear in mind that most of the choices and purchasing decisions for toys are done by parents – and I know a lot of parents who will only buy “girl’s toys” for their daughters. As much as we can hate it and rail against it, that is the reality that a huge number of girls face.

    So whilst we can complain that “gendered” toys are wrong, that there are loads of fantastic gender neutral toys out there, and that society needs to change, (all things I agree with), this is essentially intellectualizing the debate, and does nothing to help the situation now. In the meantime there are girls growing up right now who are narrowing their options for the lack of toys like this. We need to appreciate these toys for what they are – a crafty “trojan horse” deception to get an engineering toy (whatever the shortcomings) into the hands of girls who ARE NOT LIKE US. Some of these girls may continue on to better, more suitable engineering toys such as Lego and Meccano let’s not pretend that they will go straight from GoldieBlox to year 1 Engineering. Let’s be pragmatic. Girls’ engineering toys are merely a “gateway drug”, a compromise, a quick and dirty tool in the girls’ STEM toolkit, so let’s use it whilst we work on the wider problems.

    • My concern, in addition to the other points raised above, is that it’s false advertising. I don’t want to lure girls into engineering with a ‘gateway drug’ that ends up being nothing like real engineering. Not all girls are going to have either the interest or aptitude to become engineers, so I want to catch the interests of those who do, which means using the non-gendered toys that best interest future engineering students of any gender.

      • Whilst I see your point about misleading girls about engineering, I disagree. There are many stages and barriers between playing with toys and actually choosing to study engineering – any child who does not really have the interest or aptitude will have a thousand opportunities to *not* become an engineer. No-one is going to get kids of this age to fully understand the reality of an engineering degree or job, and you would be daft to try. Much to my disappointment, real civil engineering is nothing like playing with Lego or Meccano. All that any toy can do (and this includes Lego and all the other “acceptable” gender neutral toys) is to encourage general skills and interest. Toys like GoldieBlox are for young children (age 4-9) and will be an early stage on the path to engineering – and yes, many many children will not continue on that path – but at least they can consider it. This is all about widening the base, increasing the pool of potential engineers.

        On this note, something which has not been discussed is social acceptability. As a father myself I see with dismay the prevailing social pressures on my daughter that she experiences as a result of exposure to other children at school. Some of her female friends are only ever given pink “girl” toys i.e. dolls, makeup sets etc, and are actively discouraged from playing gender neutral or “boy’s” toys both by their parents and by their peers. Both myself and my wife are very active in educating our daughter that all children can play with all toys of any colour, but it’s hard work when you have to fight against conflicting messages from her peers and their parents. A lot of people just think “pink = girl’s toy, blue= boy’s toy”. Therefore by introducing a toy which appears to be a “girl’s” toy, but actually has some intelligent, engineering content, you are creating an environment of social acceptability for girls to try intelligent play, without being teased or criticised by the uninformed, ignorant voices surrounding them. And yes, these girls won’t find pink soldering irons at university – but give them some credit – if they start playing with engineering toys at age 4 and are still into engineering at age 18, it won’t be because of the colour pink, it will be because they were genuinely interested in engineering. And importantly, they will have stuck with it because they could pursue that interest without being mocked or derided by their peers.

        So personally I wouldn’t buy this toy for my own 5 year old daughter – I will be buying her better, more relevant and gender neutral toys – but I might consider buying it as birthday presents for all her friends who would never get Lego or Meccano from their parents, and who would never play with something without “Princesses” on it. In this way, my daughter can continue her interest in engineering, hopefully insulated from being teased about doing “boy’s stuff”. I see that as worthwhile, even if none of her friends take up engineering.

  8. I am a grandmother who is searching for toys for my 4-year-old and 6-year-old granddaughters. My husband and I have bought puzzles, books, blocks, etc., for them over the years. Unfortunately, most of their toys (not bought by us) seem to be princess-inspired toys. I grew up playing with tinker-toys, wooden blocks that my parents made and painted, puzzles that my mom made with a jig-saw and magazine pictures, Lincoln Logs, small building bricks (before the Lego Blocks came on the market), etc., as well as my dolls and paper dolls, Jax, etc. It saddens me that toys have become so gender-oriented, but that is how it is nowadays. I think perhaps toys such as GoldiBlox have their place in helping these “princess-oriented” girls learn a few engineering principles, even if they don’t become engineers. All children deserve to learn how the world works, and not many mothers sew anymore; we used to play with buttons and spools, yarns and threads, etc. How many children even see these items in their homes anymore? So, any and all toys that help children learn are welcome. Thanks for your thoughtful blog and all the thoughtful comments.

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  10. Reblogged this on Whimsically Yours and commented:
    YES, thank you for this! This is exactly my thoughts about the toy (GoldieBlox). While I commend GoldieBlox on the diversification of the three girls, the elaborate commercial that kept me watching to see what these girls had created, etc…the toy still stresses that we, girls, need “special toys”. It’s a start, yes, but it’s not the solution. I played with legos, my brother and I…he also played with my barbies, go figure (of course, Barbies are riddled with gender, etc…problems).

    The point is, buy your daughter some legos. She’ll love them just as much. It’s society that creates these stereotypes (e.g. girls not good at/no interest in engineering). Not children. My little brother and I played with everything together, we could care less. We just wanted to have fun and be our mischievous selves.
    -Patrice

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  12. GoldieBlox was created for one thing, to make a ton of money. The CEO did years of market research by her own admission, hired the ad agency The Academy to make her “viral” video, and knew what legal action to take with copyright infringement before it was even whispered, all the while playing the part of a small start-up needing funding on kickstarter. Now the company may win a super-bowl spot in a “Small Bussiness” contest. I would guess she had a number of private investors/backers years ago who were pitched the idea that she can sell toys to parents if labeled as smarter toys for girls.

    I as well hate what Lego did with the Friends line. In Playmobil my son has a café that serves ice cream, a pool, and a number of kitchen appliances. In Lego Friends all of these are an abomination of yellow, pink, and purple. It doesn’t make sense to me because the color scheme in no way models the real world, it’s just a marketing ploy.

    Another alternative toy that a lot of people are suggesting is a box of Magformers or something similar. My son and nieces love them (Aged 3, 3, and 5), and the best part is they are not “set up” by me or put in the frame work of a story. I showed them the concept, and besides occasional guidance to a structural problem, they build on their own.

  13. I have an alternative thought approach to this whole concept of the commercial. While I was a certified tomboy, highly intelligent child, and sought alternative toys I believe my access to toys was limited by my parents. I would, as a parent, provide all sorts of toys to foster creativity and learning for any child. However, there are PLENTY of parents who would not even give it another thought. These are parents who are limited in their own exploratory abilities who could have a little girl who would love a toy like this. They have to market to THOSE parents. Have you spent some time in a Walmart lately???? If you have, I think it is easy to understand how this marketing to a large population of parents would actually work. That, in an of itself, is kind of sad. However, I am happy that somebody is trying to reach those little girls who are being raised by parents who would never even think to foster that kind of play. This opinion comes from a gal who shopped for days for a bike with mom only to find a bike days later in 30 minutes shopping with dad. When I arrived home to show my mother my new BMX bike all she could say was “That is a boy’s bike!” She had never showed me those bikes, thank goodness for my daddy!

  14. GoldiBlox seems designed to become a popular toy and its marketing and branding is admirable. The name is catchy and a pun on “Goldilocks,” and it’s pink and pretty while still being designed to teach engineering — which seems like a concession to the insane pink-ness of everything these days, or to those girls who otherwise would never have touched an engineering toy unless it was pink. Unfortunately it does have to cater to those stereotypes and the need for “special” girl toys. Thanks for the list of other toys, though.

    As a kid, I wish I had had a toy like Goldiblox. I liked making things, putting things together, and doing “narrative play.” I like that Goldiblox would be attractive to girls who like narrative play and storybuilding as well as just building. But you’re very right in that not all girls need narrative play or special girl toys. Goldiblox is marketing itself as the Solution To All Girls’ Toys Ever, which is probably a very good strategy for the company but not good science or good for our (mis)conceptions about girls’ toys. What I find kind of baffling is that while the girls in the ad sang about not wanting pink everything, they used pink everything to build their machine…I just assumed that they had built one big toy out of all the random pink stuff they had acquired over the years.

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  16. I disagree, this ad is a step in the right direction. There is so much gender-based marketing that created constructs and gender roles and something incremental, a slight rebranding, though its not as perfect as you would like, is useful. As a teacher of k-8 and also afterschool I’ve seen the pervasive consumer culture surrounding toys really sink into young women’s minds. Yes legos are open ended, yes actually, the toy itself seems kind of simple, yes gender neutral is ideal, but I have heard hundreds of young women say “legos are for boys” and resume playing with whatever pink thing is around them, a barbie or princess mirror et al. So I would love more than anything for these women to see this if only to slightly change their minds about gender based toy-specificity. Then maybe they’ll begin to look at the lego sets, a step in the right direction.

  17. also, it’s not really relevant that engineering is not a gendered specialty or they won’t get pink tools. We’re not talking about a direct transfer from goldie blocks to engineering school, we’re simply talking about building interest and possible early neural circuitry that will survive synaptic pruning that created a lingering interest in a varied field. This is a stepping stone so far back in a certain pathway, it need not be 1:1 with an actual engineering college but it nevertheless may be a critical one. That’s like saying T-ball is bogus bc in the major league they’ll have 100 mile an hour fastballs coming at them. It’s not relevant, yet, a positive t-ball experience is a part of most major league players personal narrative. Cliche but: The perfect is the enemy of the good.

  18. Just had to add–I also played office supply store for many many hours! What nerds. :) Thanks for the thoughtful response–I would echo the commenters above that I was thinking of GoldieBlox specifically for my nieces, who have been peppered with pink pink pink and so gravitate toward that automatically, but are more than just the plastic princesses they love. I like it not so much as a gateway as a familiar method of sampling something that’s different than what they already have–and if they don’t like it, so be it. But at least they tried something new.

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  20. When I took Diesel Mechanics in high school/vocational school I was the first girl to complete the program & there was nothing pink (or pastel) about it. When I went to college to become a programmer, there were no pink PCs. When I light my furnace, fix the inner workings of my toilet or air up my tires, nothing is pink.

    I’ve never bought my daughter any science based toys that were geared toward her being a ‘girl’ AND I have bought her plenty of science based toys over the years. I think I did just the opposite of what the advertisers wanted me to. I bought toys I felt would spark my daughter’s innate interest in science. She’s 12 currently; she wants to be an astronomer and has been interested in space since she was 3. She was one of the first girls in her sport rocket club and she’s one of only a few girls in our local US army cadet corps of engineers.

    On the other hand, while my 3 year old son got a rocket for Christmas & lots of cars, trucks and super heroes, he also has a kitchen set and a baby doll in his list of favorite toys. He cooks elaborate dinners for everyone. I actively teach him how to be nurturing when he handles the baby doll. I don’t care (and he doesn’t seem to either) that it’s wearing pale purple and the crib he uses for his “baby Daniel” to sleep in is pink.

    In today’s society, I think we all need to be primary and pastel.

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