Nan Austin

March 6, 2014

Nan Austin: How do we beat gender stereotypes?

Building blocks of engineering careers morph to help girly-girls feel in the pink in carpet construction zones. Will little lady Legos and GoldiBlox mean more women in STEM fields for the upcoming generation?

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I played with wooden blocks and made mud pies in the dirt, but in today’s gender-ified toy selection, I might have have spent my formative years making tea in a Sweetheart Playhouse or building with little lady Legos in pinks and purples.

Talking to kids at Legos Day in the Turlock library brought these musings to mind. The classic building bricks, I learned, now have a marketing niche just for girls. Girls have Friends in the Lego world; boys have Heroes. Comparing castles, the fem-blocks version has pink walls, gold turrets, a big purple slide and a pet cat. Boys get sword-carrying knights and a dragon.

I think I would have gone for the dragon, but Karen Patel said she sees most girls making very different choices than boys the same age. “They’ll start building little gardens and little pools,” she said. Patel’s son Shilin, 16, volunteers his time and donated his Legos to the library. Donations have brought some pink and purple into the primarily gray, black and red collection.

Looking around the Lego-laden floor, dozens of boys forged forts and tricked-out trucks, while a half-dozen girls picked out pretty pastels and made homey scenes.

Nine-year-old Grace Trouts, putting together a flowery garden, said she was just getting into building. “My brother does Legos. He likes making really cool machines,” Grace said. Does she? “No,” she answered, turning back to her creation. “I like following the instructions.”

Mom Terri Trouts said she’s browsed the purple aisle. “Their sets for girls have a lot of parties and picnics. Legos, for the most part, are geared for boys,” she said.

Playing with blocks, capricious as it seems, builds powerful foundations for math. Stacking them teaches numbers, relative amounts and basic addition. Knock them down, that’s subtraction. Get a second box of them, that’s multiplication. Have to share them with a bothersome sibling, that’s division. Building sets develop spatial skills, a key area where boys consistently outperform girls.

GoldiBlox is the blocks and book series creation of Stanford engineering grad Debra Sterling, aimed at getting more little girls to dream of engineering careers as much as nursing. “The thing is, 89 percent of engineers are male, so we literally live in a man’s world,” Sterling says in her launch video. “If we want to live in a better world, we need girls building these things, too. We need girls solving these problems.”

My own girls defied gender stereotypes, despite my best efforts. The middle child, stubborn soul that she was, even refused to wear pink. Neither played with dolls, leaving mom playing alone on the floor with the little house. I couldn’t interest my son in building anything but roads with blocks, though to be fair, he later took up building life-size catapults, and forging his own swords and suit of armor. No sign yet of conjuring up a dragon.

So, are kitty-themed sheet sets and glittery princess-themed trikes the subtle social subterfuge behind fewer females going into the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields? Or are they the answer to bringing more girls into the fold?

Right now the gender gap gapes wide in most STEM fields. Women make up about 32 percent of chemists, 21 percent of computer software engineers and less than 7 percent of mechanical engineers, according to a report by the American Association of University Women. Only in biological sciences do women make up more than half the practitioners.

First, the myth-busting: Females can do it, said experts gathered for an Education Writers Association STEM Seminar in Los Angeles last month. Girls actually take slightly more courses in math and science in high school than boys and get slightly better grades, said speaker Andresse St. Rose of the AAUW.

Research shows where females veer away is in higher education, either not considering these fields when planning majors or being turned off as they go through the courses, St. Rose said. Social cues, old-school bias and “weed-’em-out” science field evaluations share blame here.

What works to overcome this? Persistence in the face of failure. Self-confidence and an “I can” attitude. In other words, the building blocks of success just about anywhere.

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