When Liz Hletko goes toy shopping for her three children, finding just the right item for her son is a snap, while the same task for her two daughters is anything but child's play.
"Everything that is marketed to my son calls for using his brain," said the Evanston mother, whose kids are 7, 8 and 10. "But for my daughters? It's all about beauty or taking care of something."
It's a common seasonal lament as parents of girls scour the Pepto-Bismol pink aisles in search of something that isn't frilly or sparkly. But the issue is generating new heat, thanks to a video that went viral since it was posted on YouTube last month. It touts a line of toys called GoldieBlox that is designed to spark young girls' interest in building and inventing. Its motto? "More than just a princess."
Parents have embraced the GoldieBlox message of inspiring girls to enter the science, technology, engineering and math fields -- or STEM, in academic parlance -- turning its $30 Spinning Machine toy into a hot seller on Amazon.
GoldieBlox joins other new construction-related products aimed at girls -- such as LEGO Friends and Roominate, a dollhouse with circuit boards -- even as researchers try to figure out why girls are opting out of math and science careers.
While a female engineering professional crashed through the ultimate glass ceiling this week by being appointed to lead General Motors, women make up just 11 percent of working engineers, according to the National Science Foundation.
In computer sciences, women's participation has actually eroded in a generation. Women received 18 percent of degrees in computer and information sciences in 2010, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. And among top publicly traded firms in Silicon Valley -- which prides itself on shaking up the status quo -- 11.5 percent of top executives are women.
"In other countries, you don't see this big disparity," said Cindy Menches, an assistant professor of engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "What else could it be but cultural differences?"
Researchers say boys and girls start out with an equal appetite for math and science, but by middle school, girls' interest ebbs and the gender gap widens. Space camps and science fairs suddenly morph into "boy" activities, and by high school, girls are noticeably absent from subjects like calculus and physics.
Women are slowly making inroads into these male bastions. The dean at IIT's Armour College of Engineering, Natacha DePaola, is a woman, along with the last three presidents of the student government association. But progress remains modest, with female students making up 24 percent of engineering majors versus 20 percent a decade earlier.
Myriad factors are likely at play, but GoldieBlox has put the spotlight on toy stereotypes. Even preschoolers quickly grasp which aisle is geared to them, child development experts say, with girls reaching for the pastel packaging of dolls, ponies, fashion and beauty make-believe while boys seek out dark hues on items with wheels, pulleys, batteries and robotics.
Debbie Sterling, GoldieBlox's founder, said she has nothing against princesses; she just thinks they should build their own castles.
The 29-year-old started the Oakland, Calif.-based company in 2011, six years after graduating from Stanford University, where she was among a handful of women in engineering and product design classes. When she shared her career aspirations with her family, her mother responded, "Ew. Why?" Sterling said in a TED Talk this year.
The entrepreneur spent a year researching gender differences in toys and interviewing everyone from neuroscientists to kids, according to the company website. Girls liked building things just as much as boys, she found, but they also loved stories and characters and wanted to know the "why." So Sterling replaced the usual step-by-step manual with a narrative relating to girls' lives.
Hletko, a psychologist, was just relieved to see anything that points to more tool belts, less tulle. "I like that focus ... that girls can make and do things," she said.
Her GoldieBlox purchase was for 10-year-old Sofie, who wants to be an engineer and prides herself on not being "girly." But even 7-year-old Sydney -- whom her mother described as more of a "fashionista" -- enjoys playing with the sets.
"(Sydney) now sees art and creativity and building as something that goes together. ... I'm a big fan," Hletko said.
While its message has struck a chord with a subset of parents, GoldieBlox also benefited from a kerfuffle over its catchy ad campaign, which featured a sendup of the Beastie Boys song "Girls."
The rap group prohibits the use of its music to sell products, so GoldieBlox filed a lawsuit, then relented, removing the parody song from the video. This week, the two surviving Beastie Boys members fired back anyway, filing a lawsuit of their own.
All the legal wrangling has raised awareness of GoldieBlox, but many women hope it spurs awareness of the more serious issue of gender imbalance in these high-paying, fast-growing fields.
Right from birth, some parents make a conscious effort to strip typecasting out of their child's environment.
Katie Carley painted her 2-year-old daughter's room green and buys primarily educational toys, such as books and puzzles. The Mokena mother also likes to assemble things, so she was delighted to see her daughter intrigued by hammers and screwdrivers.
But the princess culture already has a firm grip on the toddler, who wanted to be a princess for Halloween. "I think it's all about TV," said Carley, who also has a 3-month-old son.
The IIT's Menches, who holds a doctorate in civil engineering, agrees that early influences are important. For example, Menches' father was in construction and would routinely take her to job sites, exposing her to a profession she called "way more enjoyable than being at a desk."
"I didn't fit in, but I believe our little girls will," she said.
Regardless of gender, the $22 billion toy industry is booming. Building sets posted a 22 percent increase -- the largest of any category -- from 2011 to 2012, according to the Toy Industry Association. The market potential will only grow, along with the need to attract talented, confident leaders to these STEM professions, said Adrienne Appell, a representative for the trade group.
Carol Post is the lone female principal at Thornton Tomasetti, a Chicago structural engineering firm behind a number of high-profile projects. She thinks the problem is far more complex than whatever gift is under the tree.
Post was a cheerleader who enjoyed making clothes -- hardly the kind of resume that would have hinted at her future achievements. But she attended an all-girl high school, where about 15 out of the 180 students in the class of 1976 studied engineering. "We weren't trying to impress anyone else," she said.
And that sewing hobby? It's about following a pattern and seeing a project from conception to completion -- just like engineering.
To help open the door, she invites smart high school students to tour her firm every year. At its heart, though, engineering is not just about trusses and columns but also relationships and collaboration -- areas that women excel at, she said.
"But mostly, engineering is about solving problems. That's what really jazzes us up."
(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: New toys encourage girls to be builders
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