GoldiBlox and the Trouble with Pink

GoldiBlox are filling up my Facebook feed and my Twitter stream this week, despite the fact that I don't know any girls (or parents of girls) in the right age range for the toy. My thoughts on GoldiBlox haven't changed much since the Kickstarter campaign. The short version is this: an engineering toy marketed to girls is a great idea, but why must it be pink?

I am reminded of this press release from April, about a study on female STEM role models that found "feminine" STEM role models discouraged girls from STEM fields. What's a "feminine" STEM role model look like? Scientist Barbie, apparently:

The girls read magazine interviews about three female university students displaying feminine characteristics (wearing make-up and pink clothes, likes fashion magazines) or gender-neutral traits (wearing dark-colored clothes and glasses, likes reading).

According to this description, I am not feminine.

  • Except when acting in my school's annual musical, I have rarely worn make-up. I like my face as-is, and I don't need puffs, powders and gels to feel feminine.
  • I don't like pink anymore. I haven't since I was about ten, when my wardrobe switched from pink and purple to blue and grey (gender-neutral dark-colored clothes, I guess). I avoid pink now.
  • I'm pretty sure the only times I've read fashion magazines are when I've been stuck in waiting rooms with nothing else to read. For me, the word that comes to mind about fashion magazines is "drivel."1

Now I know that I am not exactly going to win awards for "most feminine woman of the year," but I consider myself feminine, and it bothers me that definitions like this leave me out.

So. GoldiBlox. They're pink. And pastels. And I feel like – by making that color choice – they've left out girls who – like me – have no appetite for pink. And I worry a little bit that that study is right, and maybe GoldiBlox will push girls away from engineering and the sciences.

I understand that the GoldiBlox folks are also aiming at parents (and other toy-gifters) who think "pink is for girls." I get that. But why can't there be a blue set, too? Or a green one? Or a yellow one?2 Why must it be pink first and pink primarily?

Over at Re-imagining Engineering, Michelle Oyen has spoken as a voice of dissent.3 Though I agree with a lot of her piece, I think she comes down a little harsh against the toys. I'm particularly frustrated with this section (emphasis mine):

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that it is NOT helpful to suggest that anything that gets more girls into engineering is clearly a good thing. When the students arrive at University for their introductory engineering classes, they will NOT find “narrative-based” structural statics activities. When they enter the workshops, they will NOT find pink soldering irons or drills.

It's probably true that introductory engineering probably won't have "narrative-based" activities, and that workshops won't have pink tools. But why on earth not? I recently read an article about an engineering program that introduced more narratives project-based learning into its coursework and retained more women that way!4 That sounds like a change for the good. And if soldering irons can come in blue, green, black and red, why not pink, too?5 Does a drill stop working if it's painted pink? For that matter, do men who like red have trouble using tools that are green? Of course not.

As I said at the top, I think GoldiBlox are mostly a Good Thing. They're not just engineering toys (of which, Oyen reminds us, there are many), they're engineering toys marketed to girls. They are supposed to encourage girls' interest in STEM, and I can get behind that. I just wish that pink wasn't used as a shorthand for "girls should like this." Taken too far, it's not a message worth sending.

1: That's not to say I'm anti-fashion. I just think fashion magazines would be much more interesting if their articles were written by Tim Gunn.

2: Try not to catch the "Little Boxes" earworm, now. I have not been so successful at that.

3: Thanks to @chemjobber for the link.

4: I can't seem to find the think at the moment, but I will update and add it when it crops up. Update: I found the article, but I had misremembered it. Worcester Polytechnic Institute found project-based learning helped retain women engineers. My mind jumped from project-based learning to "women are more motivated by social context and collaboration" to "narrative." Though I think they're all related, I don't want to overstate their conclusions.

5: A college friend of mine has said many a time that she'd like to start a glamour lab attire business with pink lab coats and sparkly goggles. It's not my cup of tea, but if it makes you happy and keeps you just as safe, then why not?