Thursday, 20 August 2015

Do we Need Different Tech Toys for Girls and Boys?

Do we need different tech toys for girls and boys?

There has been lots of recent discussion about the problems with labelling toys as specifically for girls or for boys. Let Toys be Toys is a UK campaign that aims to remove the gender-specific elements to the promotion of toys.

Tech toys have traditionally been marketed to boys. There's a movement to encourage girls into technical subjects and this starts when they are very young. Is gender-specific marketing good when it goes against the stereotypes? There are some fantastic tech toys that have been designed with girls in mind and these were starting to appear in the girl sections in toy stores.

Does removing girl sections from stores mean that people buying for girls won't even see tech toys as they will avoid the tech toys section as they see it as just for boys? That would be a step backwards.

Let's take a look at the issues involved and see where we are with making sure that all kids have access to tech toys that appeal to them.

Removing Gender Markers from Stores

Let Toys Be Toys campaign is asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.

Let Toys be Toys has been concerned with the labelling and marketing of toys as girls toys and boys toys and has been very successful in getting UK retailers to change their signage. The issue is also getting coverage in the US and Target recently announced that they will stop using girls and boys signage where it's not relevant and also say they will stop using pink and blue to identify girls and boys sections in their stores.

Removing the signage is a good first step towards making sure that it's okay for boys and girls to choose the toys that they naturally prefer (provided girls get taken into the tech sections.)  However, even if you remove the explicit labels there are still biases designed into many toys. There are obvious ones like pink vs blue and cars for boys and flowers for girls and there are more subtle cues that we respond to that will make us instantly categorise a toy as for boys or for girls.

When we consider tech toys it's important to consider the biases that are manufactured into the toys as well as the way retailers label them.

We want to encourage more girls to consider tech careers and the toys they play with will influence their thinking. Removing labels from toys might help the girls who want to choose traditionally 'boys toys', and I would possibly have been one of those as a child. But we also need to develop toys that appeal to a broader population of girls. For this we're going to need more tech toys without overt boy markers.

We want it to be normal for girls to like really techy stuff and removing the boy labelling and marketing helps here. We also want it to be normal for tech toys to have characteristics that are attractive to a broader population girls who are growing up with lots of cultural influences that tell them what girls like.

Is there a Problem with Tech Toys?

Tech toys fall into a number of different categories and we've taken a look at what's available.

Gadgets and Wearables

Kids tablets, smart watches and music players are marketed to boys and girls. How do we know this? Well they are usually made available in two colours, often pink and blue, so that everyone is clear that boys and girls are users of technology. 

Unless we're talking about spy gadgets, those are very much designed to appeal to boys.  

Remote Control and Robot Pets

Remote control vehicles are heavily oriented towards boys. There are a few pink and purple remote control cars available but considering that most girls will be drivers as adults there's not much available. 

There certainly are robot pets that will appeal to both boys and girls but I was surprised to see so many pink and powder blue robot pets, these are obviously not natural colours and have been chosen as gender indicators. Then there are the robot pets that are clearly aimed at boys or girls. We might get a cute robot hamster aimed at girls and a scary robot spider marketed to boys. There are plenty of girls who would prefer the spider and there aren't many young boys who can't appreciate something cute.

There are ranges such as Furby which which are marketed more to girls (though not exclusively) and there are dinosaurs that are marketed to boys. 

I was surprised to see how many robot toys feature the colour blue (or black with red.) There's even a robot with a light panel that can change colour, but in all the promotional shots it's blue. I'm sure the manufacturer's would claim that these toys are not just for boys, but why pick blue out of all the colours!  These are fantastic toys and many girls will enjoy them anyway, but for future versions can we try something different?

Inventive Tech Toys

Then there are the tech toys that actually aim to teach children about technology and how it works. 

LEGO Mindstorms is a leading robotics toy for children. When you look at the packaging and set it really does say 'boy' - harsh black, red and grey. Marziah Karch has an excellent article on this topic:  How to Get Girls into EV3 Robotics. Robotics for the future is concerned with health and care applications, automating domestic chores and the ethics around robot-human interactions. Don't we want girls to be involved in engineering those robots and making those decisions? Mindstorms is still a great toy for girls and I agree with Karch that some girl-friendly adaptations are the way to go for broader appeal.  

Then there's the new Meccanoid robot from Meccano. It has big cute eyes and doesn't use blue, but all of those grey industrial looking pieces do seem to be more boy-oriented and it has a clearly male voice. Meccano of course has a very boy-centric history. I think Meccanoid is heading in the right direction to have a broader appeal. I know I would have loved one of these as a girl. But there's still a way to go. 

But Aren't Boys Just More Interested in Tech than Girls?

I don't think we really know whether boys are more naturally interested in creating technology than girls. Culture and media are strong influences. It's not that we want to encourage girls to play with inventive tech toys against their will! It's just that we want to make sure there aren't any unnecessary barriers to them doing so. 

I've spent a lot of time with the children at my local primary school and there are lots of children who don't conform to the typical stereotypes. I suspect there would be more if their heads hadn't been filled with ideas of what girls like and what boys like since they started preschool or started watching TV adverts. I see a lot more difference within the genders than across them.

Gender stereotypes assume that all girls like the same things and all boys like the same things. Marketing to stereotypes separates toys into girl toys and boy toys. This is the thinking that produces different robot pet product lines for boys and girls, or makes a kids camera in pink and blue to signal that it's suitable for both genders.

Lots of girls do like pink and kittens and lots of boys do like blue and dinosaurs, due to cultural influence of course, but it is still the case. So what's wrong with offering the popular choice?

Even if boys and girls do have a tendency towards certain character traits then there's huge overlap.

A significant minority of kids just don't fit into the boxes and will choose toys that are marketed to the other gender. Good on them, but it can currently be a difficult thing to do.

Many kids are strongly influenced by what they are supposed to like according to their gender. This can't be a good thing, kids should be able to follow their interests and discover what they like.

Lots of kids like a mixture of things. I have a son who loves science, maths, coding and electronics, but also asked for a LEGO Elves set for his birthday and has a My Little Pony. I don't think he's particularly unusual. Real kids don't fit into neat marketing boxes.

Is Colour Really That Important?

Many tech toys follow the pink for girls and blue for boys convention. Everytime I see a new tech product that comes in two colours: pink and blue, my heart sinks. Bright pink and electric blue are a bit better that pastel pink and powder blue but still. Kids really don't need special colours to tell them that the toy is suitable for boys and girls.

I've certainly found the tendency to produce tech toys in pink and blue frustrating personally as a mum to two boys who didn't like pink or blue. 

I have some sympathy with the manufacturers. When toy stores are arranged into boys and girls sections they need to have a product for each section of the store. At least this problem is starting to go away with physical and online stores removing these divisions.

For many products, adding another colour is a big production expense. Well just choose one neutral colour then and provide accessories to customize them.

What About Encouraging Girls into Tech?

The tech industry is huge and growing, there will be lots of tech career opportunities, it's important that girls have the opportunity to develop skills and interests that open up tech careers to them. 

We're starting to see some fantastic STEM toys that are marketed specifically to girls. Is this an improvement? Or just more gender stereotyping?

I think ultimately it's just more stereotyping. We don't want a boy who likes Roominate to feel stigmatised any more that a girl who covets a Miposaur. (And lots of boys do like Roominate, just as lots of girls like the Miposaur.)

In an ideal world I would be less keen on tech resources that are just marketed to girls. A long time ago, I was a young girl who liked technology and I would have been really disappointed to be told that there was special girl stuff for me that used the colour pink a lot or was more concerned with fashion and storytelling - the boy stuff would have looked a lot more fun. That doesn't mean that all products need to appeal equally to all children, just don't label them as for boys or for girls, or introduce unnecessary barriers to either gender choosing them.  

Despite being given clear messages from the media about what girls like and what boys like I haven't observed a strong feeling of tech or STEM being for boys among young children. The girls are just as interested and engaged as the boys. I have a concern that giving them tech or STEM toys for girls at a young age highlights a difference that they haven't yet spotted.

I prefer the approach of getting girls interested in technology while they are young and getting them hooked before they have any idea that certain parts of society see tech as a boy thing. 

But the playing field is not level at the moment, at some point children will be exposed to influences that tell them what they should like. You could argue that with the current situation being so unbalanced that it's okay to do something gender-specific to help address the balance. There are plenty of tech toys that that are perceived as boys toys, maybe adding some girl-specific toys just evens things up a bit? Pragmatically, if a STEM toy marketed specifically to girls moves things forward then that's a good thing. Eventually the need for the label should go away.

If we accept that there are differences between how boys and girls play (whether genetic or cultural) then tech toys designed to appeal to stereotypical boys and stereotypical girls will be different. If the toy industry pays attention to girls and how they play then that should lead to more variety and broader appeal in the toys which is a good thing. 

There's also a very valid argument that some parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles won't think to buy technology for girls unless it's marketed to them. Maybe girls tech toys will mean that more girls get access to tech toys where otherwise they might have missed out.

Can Tech Toys Appeal to Both Boys and Girls?

So is it possible to make tech toys that appeal to both boys and girls? Definitely, and there are some great examples out there.

littleBits Electronics Components

We've been really impressed with littleBits electronics components for making stuff. littleBits components are brightly coloured and include pink bits (input modules) and blue bits (power modules.) We love that when boys make stuff with littleBits they will be using pink bits. This helps to undermine the pink is for girls message just a little bit. 

littleBits shows that it is possible to design an inventive tech toy that appeals to boys and girls. 

MaKey MaKey

MaKey MaKey allows you to use everyday objects as computer inputs. As long as an object is just a little bit conductive it can be used as a controller. MaKey MaKey is a fab gadget that really appeals to kids. 


Minecraft is a game in which kids build worlds using blocks. Now that Minecraft has Alex, a main character who is a girl, it really has broad appeal to girls and boys. Because kids get to create things that they are interested in they can really tailor their experience to their own interests.

What Next for the Tech Toy Industry?

So what should toy inventors and manufacturers be thinking about when making tech toys that will encourage boys and girls to develop their tech skills?
  • Have an honest look at your tech toy. Does it have features that will strongly appeal to one gender that aren't part of its play value? Could your toy be modified to have broader appeal?
  • If you're going to use the colour blue on a tech toy then use the colour pink in equal quantities. Otherwise just steer clear of blue for now - at this point in culture it just says boy. 
  • It's okay to develop toys that will appeal to some kids more that others. Just remember that characteristics vary hugely within genders. If you're developing a toy for adventurous / creative kids then make it appeal to adventurous / creative girls and boys and market to the characteristic not the gender. 
  • If you can't make a business case to produce more than two colours then just start with one neutral colour, it's even cheaper to produce. You can add other colours later. But, establish the toy as suitable for boys and girls without creating a pink one and a blue one. Make a white one and provide stickers so children can personalize it. 
  • It's fine to have some tech toys that appeal more strongly to boys and are packed with stereotypical boy cues (some girls will love those too), just consider whether your range can also include tech toys that appeal more strongly to girls. And no, I'm not talking about making a pink one as well as a blue one ;-)


    Some girls like really techy stuff. Some girls would be really interested in toys that develop tech skills if they were designed to be more girl-friendly (and some boys would prefer that too.) Stereotypes are not helpful! Kids are individuals. 

    Tech toy manufacturers are certainly guilty of putting lots of 'boy markers' on products that should really be appropriate to boys and girls. This definitely applies to the tech toys that help kids to learn how technology works rather than just being users of technology. 

    Tech toy manufacturers are also guilty of perpetuating the pink for girls, blue for boys colour scheme which is so central to the perception that some toys are for girls and others are for boys. It would be great to see some more creative thinking here!

    There are a few tech toys that go against the stereotypes by marketing specifically to girls. We think this is a reasonable thing to do given the current situation. But we'd like to see the girl-specific marketing dropped eventually to make sure those toys are accessible to boys too. 

    There are some fabulous tech toys that manage to appeal to girls and boys and teach tech skills. We definitely want to see more of those!

    We'd love to hear your views on this topic. Do you want to see more tech toys designed for girls? Would you prefer more tech toys that appeal to boys and girls?

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