These Toys are Inspiring the Next Generation of Women in STEM Fields

By Elana Lyn Gross, Contributor

At many toy stores there is an aisle filled with a spectrum of pinks, purples, and pastels. The aisle, known colloquially as the “pink aisle,” contains toys like dolls, princess costumes, and art sets marketed to girls. In contrast, the aisle of toys marketed to boys, such as action figures, toy cars, and building sets, is predominantly blue, green, and gray.

According to Lisa Dinella, associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University and principal investigator of the Gender Development Laboratory, the toys kids play with in their youth impacts their long-term psychological and physical development.

“Toys teach kids skills,” Dinella told Forbes in an article about gender-neutral parenting. For example, “blocks and board games teach counting and spatial skills [and] dolls let children role play nurturing.”

Today, although women make up 47 percent of the United States workforce, they hold fewer than 26 percent of jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. In response to this gender parity and growing research on the impact of gender stereotypes in youth, there has been a movement for toy manufacturers to disrupt the pink aisle and develop digital and physical items that resist placating to gender stereotypes.

Rebuilding the Pink Aisle

In 2012, two Stanford engineering graduates, Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, created Roominate, a toy company that makes building toys for girls. The sets included circuits, motors, and modular building pieces used to build structures from dollhouses to merry-go-rounds and cars.

According to Brooks, she was inspired by her own childhood spent building. “I wanted to be an engineer before I knew what an engineer was,” Brooks told Oxygen, “I wanted a Barbie, [but] my dad brought me a saw.”

Brooks and Chen created Roominate to instill a love of engineering and help kids—girls, in particular—develop problem-solving, spatial, and fine motor skills. And they’re not the only ones.

When Debbie Sterling was in high school, her math teacher suggested she pursue engineering in college. She ended up majoring in mechanical engineering and product design at Stanford University.

After graduating, one of Sterling’s former classmates told her that playing with her brother’s construction toys as a kid inspired her interest in engineering. The story sparked Sterling to create engineering toys for girls. When Sterling founded GoldieBlox in 2012, she started with construction sets that teach spatial skills, problem-solving, and engineering principles. Since its launch, GoldieBlox has expanded into books, apps, videos, and an animation featuring a girl engineer character.

In the past five years, the company—and Sterling—has received a number of accolades, including landing on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list in 2014 and The Toy Industry Association’s Educational Toy of the Year that same year.

The National Women’s History Museum awarded Sterling the Living Legacy Award in 2014 and, in 2015, former president Barack Obama named her a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship

Yet, for Sterling, the goal of GoldieBlox has nothing to do with awards. Its mission is to inspire more women to pursue STEM fields. “It starts with parents and teachers encouraging kids and getting them involved in STEM at a young age,” she told Forbes. “If we teach girls early on that they’re capable and build their confidence, they won’t feel as intimidated by entering these male-dominated fields.”

Jewelbots friendship bracelets

The Future Is Female Coders

In the same way physical toys are transforming the pink aisle, digital toys and games—specifically, ones that teach coding—are increasingly targeted to girls.

For Sara Chipps, co-founder of Girl Develop It!, and fashion-tech entrepreneur Brooke Moreland, this type of digital learning has come in the form of Jewelbots, which the paired launched in 2014. The smart jewelry or, “STEM for Best Friends,” is a programmable friendship bracelet that teaches coding basics.

While trendy, the bracelets offer much more in-depth learning in a way that is meaningful to Jewelbots’ target audience.

“We designed Jewelbots by interviewing hundreds of girls and asking: ‘What can we build for you that would get you excited about coding?'” Chipps said. When they floated the idea of friendship bracelets that light up when they are near their friends and send secret messages, the kids were excited. Today, Jewelbots light up when a friend is nearby, with wearers creating morse code-like notifications and messages.

“In under a year we’ve shipped 10,000 and of those, 4,400 kids have learned to code C++ for their bots,” Chipps said. “We’re super excited to see what they will build next.”

“We designed Jewelbots by interviewing hundreds of girls and asking: ‘What can we build for you that would get you excited about coding?'”
— Sara Chipps, Co-founder, Girl Develop It!

To see what’s in store for the future of girls who can code, one need look no further than Google’s Made With Code website, which features a variety of projects and games that teach coding skills. Through the site, girls also have the opportunity to connect with mentors, role models who have changed the world with code.

“Coding is a new literacy and it gives people the potential to create, innovate and quite literally change the world,” Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube said in a Google statement. “We’ve got to show all girls that computer science is an important part of their future, and that it’s a foundation to pursue their passions, no matter what field they want to enter.”