HERE’S a question for some people at this time of year – what did the little future engineer in your family get for Christmas?
And did she like it?
It’s considered a continued problem for educators in engineering and the physical sciences that the second question there can sound like I was deliberately confounding a reader’s expectations. For all the advances in technology they use, toy manufacturers can have a very traditional view in who they are aiming their toys at.
But are the toys not simply reflecting our society, when the toys for building things are aimed at boys, or are they contributing to these stereotypes?
When the centre I work in at Nottingham was opened by the Nobel Prize winner Sir Harry Kroto, there was a dinner afterwards.
Sir Harry asked a question at the dinner – how many of the scientists and engineers at the table had a Meccano set as a child? Most of the men, including me, raised their hands. None of the women present did.
Was this because the women didn’t want to play with Meccano when they were girls, or was it because nobody ever thought to buy them a set?
In the run-up to Christmas, I have seen comments by scientists and friends on social media about how many toys for girls are, well, rather pink and unambitious.
The “Li’l Nurse” set in pink with a girl on the front and the “Jr. Doctor” in blue with a boy on the front look distinctly old-fashioned when you consider how many of the finest doctors and medical students are women.
Some wonder if many a toy manufacturer thinks making a toy for girls is largely a matter of making something pink and sparkly. Anyone who has seen an aisle labelled “toys for girls” while shopping for presents may have noticed there is a lot less variety in the colour scheme than the equivalent “toys for boys”.
Others have noted how Lego used to try to aim their sets at all children, while now they have ranges aimed at specifically boys or girls – which appear to rely less on the child’s imagination than before.
Computer games, too, can suffer a similar image problem. Some very successful games have the characters male by default, with token female characters created largely by taking one of the male characters and adding “feminine” touches such as a bow – often pink – to their head.
Having said that, the Meccano I played with as a boy was a hand-me-down from my mother. It’s still in the family, although I was too slow to claim it – my older sister owns it now.
The presents she got over the years included an electronics set, with which she could build her own calculator and an optical microscope. Perhaps this may partially explain why she is now a computer programmer with a degree in genetics. But probably, she always was going to be, and our relatives realised the most important thing about the presents – it’s always good to give something children will enjoy and still be playing with in January.
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