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Science kits … for girls.


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Via a tweet from Ed Yong, I discovered this weekend (not that I couldn’t have guessed) that purveyors of science kits for kids are still gendering the heck out of them. That is to say, there are science kits, and there are science kits for girls.

For all I know, putting science kits in pink boxes is an excellent strategy to get them to fly off the shelves, but I am not convinced that it is a good strategy when it comes to getting girls interested in science. Indeed, I worry that whatever interest in science kits like these might cultivate might come with baggage that could actually make it harder for girls (and the women they become) to pursue scientific education and careers.

I’ll try to spell out the shape of these worries in my next post. In this post, I offer for your consideration, three “science” kits targeted at girls that appeared in toy catalogues that crossed my desk five years ago. Then, I’ll take a quick look at this year’s offerings.

Archimedes got scientific insight from a bathtub, but he wasn't required to wear eye-makeup to do it.

Spa Science

The kit offers itself as a way “to cultivate a girl’s interest in science” through the making of “beauty products like an oatmeal mask, rose bath balm, and aromatherapy oils”. Besides the “natural and organic materials” to concoct said products, the kit includes “a booklet that explores how scents affect moods and memories.”

Don’t get me wrong — there is science worth discussing in this neighborhood.

But, the packaging here strikes me as selling the need for beauty product more emphatically than any underlying scientific explanations of how they work. Does a ten-year-old need an oatmeal mask? (If so, why only ten-year-old girls? Do not ten-year-old boys have pores and sebaceous glands?) Also, I’m nervous that the exploration of scents and “aromatherapy” may be setting kids up as easy marks for health food grocers and metaphysical bookstores who will sell them all manner of high-priced, over-hyped, essential-oil-containing stuff.

Maybe the Barbie-licious artwork is intended to convey that even very “girly” girls can find some element of science that is important to their concerns, but it seems also to convey that being overtly feminine is a concern that all girls have (or ought to have) — and, that such “girly” girls couldn’t possibly take an interest in science except as a way to cultivate their femininity.

Our exposed shoulders tell you that you can do these activities without being a tomboy!

Perfumery

Aimed at a slightly younger audience (of “young ladies-in-training”) than the last kit, this one promises to teach girls “the chemistry behind” perfumes. Setting aside my skepticism about how much real engagement with chemistry one is likely to get from a kit like this, notice that the catalogue blurb starts with the claim that “Everyone should have a ‘signature scent’!” (I beg to differ. My ten-year-old’s signature scent is soap, thank you very much.) Does the benefit of teaching a kid a little bit of chemistry outweigh the cost of convincing a little girl that she ought to smell like something other than a young human? Where might this lead?

And where are the boys here? Aren’t they supposed to be grooming boys to want to buy fragrances, too? Here’s a conjecture for the field operatives to explore further: Males are sold fragrances as a way to render females helpless to the males’ sexual magnetism, whereas females are sold fragrances as a way to smell acceptable. Plus, boys just naturally dig science, whereas girls just naturally dig laboring under the weight of gender roles.

Would these products make me feel as pretty without those little tubes and pots?

Creative Cosmetics

Here’s another — substantially pricier kit — aiming to teach a little science through the mixing and application of “customized skin care items”, although again the assumption seems to be that only girls have skin that requires care, or that only girls need to be suckered into caring about science. Cynic that I am, I cannot help but wonder how much of the “important skin care and wellness facts” included with the essential oils, packaging, and instructions is devoted to actual science as opposed to cultivating an unnecessary beauty regimen.

Given that this kit “teaches them to make shampoos and shower gels, makeup, creams and lotions from common household items” — which, presumably, one’s household may already have — what could explain the high price of this kit ($60)? My bet is on the little pots and tubes and squeeze bottles — which is to say, on the part that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the skin care product, and everything to do with making you want to buy it when you see it in the store.
But surely, this kit really is intended to cultivate an interest in science rather than train new generations of consumers, right?

Casting an eye to the recent crop of girls’ science kits, I get the feeling that consumerism is the intended goal.

We see thirteen distinct kits (collect them all!), four of which are centered on growing crystals. (To be fair, one of these is advertised as combining the experiments of two of the other three.) Three of the kits are focused on perfumes, although each involves different activities (making incense, or cards and “dazzling cloth hangings,” or scented gel crystals and perfumed slime). There is a “Luxury Soap Lab” kit as well as a “Beauty Spa Lab” kit with which you can make … fancy soaps. I’m guessing that these kits are separate not to keep the retail prices down, but to encourage kids (or the people purchasing gifts for them) to buy more of them.

Plus, the description of the “Beauty Spa Lab” notes that you can make “scrub soaps for dad, or exfoliating soaps for mum.” Which is to say, the gendering is pretty thoroughgoing here.

Perhaps it’s a tiny step in the right direction that one of the girls’ kits is “Beautiful Blob Slime”. Non-Newtonian semi-solids are cool and don’t in themselves cram gendered expectations down a girl’s throat. Still, the assumption is that a girl must be reassured of the beauty of the slime before she’ll play.

Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to make a girl in grade school question whether she’ll have any interest in or aptitude for science than to present her with a “science for girls” kit. The message seems to be, “Look, there’s a bit of science that will interest even you. (And go put on some lipstick!)” Heaven knows, we couldn’t even get girls interested in building Rube Goldberg machines, or launching water-rockets, or studying the growth of plants or the behaviors of animals, or blowing stuff up … except, these are just the sort of things that the girls I know would want to do, even the pretty pink princesses.

Moreover, it seems to me a kid could explore some of this same scientific territory without coughing up $60, or even $25.

As a place to start, check out the American Chemical Society’s kids’ website.

The hands-on activities include nine fun experiments with soap and detergent, three with crystals, six with polymers, and eleven with food, just for starters. These activities can be done with materials you probably already have in the house (or can find easily in a grocery store). And, as an added bonus, none of them are labeled as experiments for girls or experiments for boys. They are experiments for whatever kid (or grown-up) want to do them.

Up next, I’ll explain why I think bundling kids’ science kids with gendered stereotypes is a bad idea both in the short term and in the long run.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sciencegoddess 8:16 pm 11/28/2011

    I follow three cosmetic chemistry blogs. Each are written by men. I only say that to indicate the perceived gender split in this field is ridiculous.

    We teach girls (14-17 years old) to make lip balm, shower gel and bath bombs in our bioengineering/chemical engineering camp (at a major university), because chemists and chemical engineers are the ones who create and produce these products, and can make a good living at it. Rest assured, this is not the only project in the camp, it is a side one that the ladies enjoy. I would expect we could get boys to do this, too, if this camp catered to boys (and that’s another post for another day).

    Interestingly, the girls seem to enjoy making BLACK bath bombs and foaming face soap! Nothing is pink or purple unless they choose to make their product pink or purple. They do enjoy it, and we discuss real science concepts such as weak acids and bases (bath bombs), formation of micelles, surfactant properties, surface tension (soaps) and properties of waterproof substances (lip balm).

    I expect (and fear), like every other “science of beauty” product or article I’ve ever seen, the science is watered down (or more horrendously, non-existent) in these kits. That is more worrisome than misguided marketing that some well meaning aunt or grandparent will fall for, unsure of which educational toy they should buy for a young lady.

    Link to this
  2. 2. killfile 10:09 pm 11/29/2011

    We were disgusted to see these kits at the OMSI giftshop but OMSI couldn’t care less.

    Cordelia Fine should be required reading.

    Link to this
  3. 3. thamesandkosmos 10:47 am 12/1/2011

    This is an excellent series of posts about the gendering of science kits! Thank you.

    I would like to note that Thames & Kosmos already changed the packaging for Creative Cosmetics back in 2008, to an arguably more gender-neutral green-and-purple color scheme. We also removed the cartoon girls from the packaging. The packaging above is from 2007 or before. We came to a realization mostly consistent with what you have written about here.

    Link to this

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