Reported in the Telegraph yesterday was the unveiling of a range of chemistry sets for kids. “Great!” I thought eagerly, “I wish I’d had toys like this when I was a kid!” I studied chemistry at university and I loved it. I now work in policy, where one of my main interests is promoting diversity in science and engineering.
So imagine my dismay when I realised these chemistry kits were in fact, for boys. The toy company Interplay has teamed up with the authors of the Dangerous Book for Boys to produce the kits, packaged to look like the books. Jess has blogged about this book here and here.
I’ve never been a particular fan of having separate books and toys for girls and boys, based on my own experiences being a girl who was denied a train set because it was ‘for boys’. However, I don’t have children and I know that even in the most progressive environment, girls and boys do tend to prefer different types of toys and behave according to stereotype.
Yet it’s impossible to deny that many girls are interested in science (and engineering, maths and computers). There are many complex social, economic and cultural barriers that eventually turn many of them away from science. For girls, the problem often boils down to the simple yet pervasive idea that science and engineering are ‘for boys’. This idea is constantly reinforced by society; their peers, teachers and family members as well as a lack of role models at home and in the media.
The article implies a trend towards a ‘back to basics’ approach to toys. Does that mean we’ll get girls back to playing in toy kitchens while the boys go off tinkering in sheds with their dads? Rose-tinted nostalgia for the good old days is demonstrated clearly in the quote from Bob Paton, the product manager:
Bob Paton, the product manager of Interplay, the Buckinghamshire-based company, which has signed the license deal with the Iggulden brothers, said: “These science kits will be wonderful for boys to bond with their fathers.
“There is a real feel-good factor about them and a world away from video games. It is our job to distract children away from video games into real toys.”
Hold on. So the kits are for boys to bond with their fathers. What are the girls doing? I didn’t realise a male appendage was required to use chemistry kits – these days they usually come with solution stirrers. I’m all for father-son bonding, but where are the chemistry kits for girls? Well, looking at Interplay’s website, girls can play with chemistry; they can make perfumes, incense and bath bombs! Hurrah. And it’s easy to tell which of their toys are for girls, just look out for the pink packaging.
I agree that it’s great to get more kids into science. But we badly need to get girls interested too; in fact I would argue that it’s more important to engage girls. There are plenty of science, engineering and IT organisations working hard to improve the image of their profession and increase diversity, particularly through activities reaching out to schoolgirls. Yet despite all their hard work, I have a nasty feeling this toy (and others like it) are undoing that work too easily and setting us back towards giving children those tired gendered messages about what they can and should be when they grow up.