Promoting gender stereotypes through toys harmful to female career choices

Photo Illustration by Josh Staab | The Collegian Toys that girls play with as kids may affect their career choices later in life.

The gender wage gap that means men make more money than women in America is misunderstood. While it’s often stated that women make 77 cents per every dollar men make in our country, a Feb. 1 article by the Daily Beast points out this statistic doesn’t take into account the differences in career paths that each gender chooses.

For example, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce compiled a list of the most financially rewarding careers in the U.S. — eight of which lie within the field of engineering — and men outnumber women in all but one of those careers.

Meghan McNally, senior in industrial engineering, said that as a woman in a historically male-dominated field, she faces doubts from others about her abilities on a daily basis, both in and out of the classroom.

“The advice females receive going through a STEM-related degree is aimed at how to cope and work in a male-dominated environment instead of focusing on negotiating pay or learning to be competitive with suppliers,” McNally said. “The attitude throughout her life is that she’s combating the norm. Why not allow her to stop ‘combating’ things and let her do work to show her potential?”

Researchers have been trying to determine what causes men to focus more than women on STEM careers, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. They are pointing to elements that begin shaping the interests of young people almost from birth: toys.

An article published by BBC News on Feb. 6 suggests the ways in which society markets certain toys for males and certain toys for females is a strong contributor to what we now see in the form of a wage gap.

This is because, in many cases, toys traditionally designed and marketed for girls tend to promote ideas of leisure and standards of being seen rather than heard, such as Barbie dolls or dress-up clothes, while toys tradtionally for boys generally encourage the development of problem-solving techniques, such as building blocks and puzzle-related activities.

These differences, the article suggests, later generate interest in science and math for men but almost none for women.

Chardie Baird, associate professor of sociology and director of the K-State Office for the Advancement of Women in Science and Engineering (KAWSE), said this “princess” mentality strongly contributes to more harmful, prevailing stereotypes in our culture.

“This is a piece of a bigger picture in which we believe girls and women can’t do math as well as boys and can’t do science as well as boys,” Baird said.

According to Baird, research has shown there are very few differences in math ability between the sexes, and that perceived differences are disappearing over time.

“We expect any differences that still exist to be completely similar over time because women are now entering science and math fields, so the differences that looked like they were about ability were really about the fact that girls weren’t able to do the activities that let them gain those skills and abilities rather than some sort of innate thing,” she said.

Baird added that while there is an increase of women in STEM careers, the perception that girls are inherently incapable of competing in these fields still exists.

Whether gender-specific toys actually influence a child’s interests later in life or not is still under debate. McNally said she believes the types of activities and exposure she enjoyed as a child likely influenced her interest in pursuing a STEM career.

“Growing up, I had a brother and a sister a year apart from me, so there were always both girls’ and boys’ toys around,” she said. “I enjoyed playing with Legos or doing hands-on activities, like building birdhouses. I believe the way others saw me making use of my toys or learning how they worked helped them encourage me to keep exploring, and without that encouragement, I would not have believed in myself enough to pursue engineering.”

According to Torry Dickinson, professor in women’s studies, only fostering men’s interests in science and math fields while repressing women’s is not only damaging to females, but also to society as a whole.

“Businesses’ search for profit has been a major source of gender inequality in multiple ways,” Dickinson said. “Social acceptance of the profit motive above all else plays into institutions that maintain and extend gender inequality. This hurts the economy and also the home, family and community. It’s time we start valuing the world’s people.”

Baird said he believes that the entire population would benefit from an increase in women exploring STEM careers.

“In their daily lives, women are being squelched rather than encouraged to figure out what they’re good at,” she said. “We’re missing out on talented people who are capable of developing important discoveries that we could find useful.”

McNally echoed Baird’s thoughts, saying that all children, regardless of gender, should have the chance to find their strengths and passions in order to successfully contribute to society in adult life.

“It is so vitally important to encourage children at a young age to explore and be creative,” McNally said. “I believe the early encouragement of engineering toys can give the boost and acceptance females need in today’s society to be successful.”