I have three beautiful nieces. One is thirteen, one just turned two, and the littlest one will be celebrating her first birthday on Friday. They're all experiencing various stages of change and undergoing assorted adjustments. The thirteen-year-old is in middle school, and is negotiating a new social landscape with both her friends and her parents. The two-year-old is potty training and being weaned from her pacifier (and doing well on both accounts—she asks for them and then tells herself that the pacifiers are all gone). And the one-year-old is still trying to work out her world through taste and touch and various yells. I think I'm safe: she's licked me several times, so I seem to have passed some sort of test. They're curious and still unafraid of the world, and I think that's a beautiful thing. I want to encourage that as much as possible, and one of the ways I try to do that is with age appropriate STEM-oriented gifts. (I'm actually already planning ahead for when the little ones are older.)
The science blogosphere is buzzing over a line of products marketed as “Science Kits for Girls” made by a company called Wild! Science. There are kits for boys too, but they focus on physics and chemistry, and slime molds, whereas the kits for girls focus on "mystic" crystals, lip balm, soaps, and snowflakes—and they come in pink boxes. Girls can make "beautiful" slime while boys make "weird" slime—so the knife cuts both ways in terms of gender expectations.
This marketing ploy genderizes and segregates science, and reinforces notions of acceptable behavior and interests. If girls are at all interested in science, then it must be in a pretty, feminine way that reinforces notions of beauty. It's mystical. The chemistry of perfumery is hidden behind "perfection." But boys get actual physics and chemistry—just like that, with no fancy modifiers. This division is NOT okay, but others in the sci-blogging community have already dissected this, notably Evelyn Mervine (here), Phil Plait (here), and Janet Stemwedel (here and here and here). I could do little more than repeat what they've said at this point on why gendering science is counterproductive, and I strongly recommend you read their posts.
The good news is that this due to these types of discussions, Edmund Scientifics, another science kit manufacturer that also previously divided its novelty kit selection by gender, has responded by reorganizing this section of the site in a more gender neutral way. The disappointing news is that Wild! Science is less inclined to review its marketing practices, choosing instead to adhere to a mantra of "Findability":
Findability'. Starting in 1997, and for three years onwards, all our kits were gender neutral. We used green background boxes. The public that found the kits, loved them once they had used them. But most buyers complained a) they did not know if the kits were 'for them', meaning 'for boys or for girls'. b) why did we 'hide' the kits away!! Major retailers ‘hid’ the kits because they had no easy-to-find category or home for the kits. NOTE: About 60% of our kits were bought then by or for girls before 2000. Now it is even higher.
Thus we had parents and kids asking why we did not make it clear whom the kits were for. And secondly, we had retailers not having a 'home' for the kits, pressing us to FLAG the kits for boys or for girls, so they can find a home.
I'm sorry—I thought science was for everyone. Of course, this is indicative of a larger issue relating to the gendered meanings we have assigned to pink and blue. These colors reinforce notions of femininity and masculinity and can be used as indicators of appropriateness, which are sometimes taken blindly. The idea being that if it comes in a gender-oriented color, it must be "safe" for that gender even if the content is actually inappropriate. We're taught these associations, and we can challenge them.
Now I have a confession to make. For my two-year-old niece's birthday, I bought her a make-believe medical kit. It's pink. She loves it. I chose it over the blue kit that was next to it because the medical case that holds the stethoscope, thermometer, and other wellness tools closes completely so that she can take it with her on play-dates easily and it can be stored with minimal worry about lost pieces. I made this choice after assessing both kits and confirming that the pink kit was not a lesser version, as has been the case with other pink products. For example, retailer Toys R Us offered a set of microscopes where the pink version had the lowest optic options. They appear to have since adopted a gender neutral approach: Now when you visit the science and discovery toy section of the website, you still have the option to search for "girls toys" or "boys toys," but the "girls toys" return the same results. Science can be pink, or blue or green or yellow, but it should also be equal.
The discrepancy in content between the kits is disturbing because girls have the option not to choose pink, but do boys ever have the option to choose pink? Will the little boy curious about scents be isolated by his siblings and extended family if they learn what science kit he wants? Because it comes in a pink box? Or what about the little boy who isn't into spooky or gross things? Ultimately, the item should relate to the child's interests, regardless of packaging. So if your daughter wants an entomology kit and you buy her a cheese making kit, you haven't really done much to excite her interest in either case.
I was a curious child—always into something, sometimes to my mother's dismay. There was the time I wanted to see where the ants went after they disappeared into the ground and so I dug up the nest. Only these were fire ants, and they were far from pleased by my four-year-old curiosity. There was also the time I wanted to know how my grandmother's clock worked, so I dismantled it. She was furious. And told my mother that I wasn't a proper (girl) child. Sure, I was scolded, and I learned to pick investigations that would upset grandma less, but the curiosity never went away, and my parents never worked to squash it.
I definitely had my share of pink learning toys growing up, but the ones that I remember most were the ones that sparked my imagination and challenged me in some way: Legos, puzzles, dinosaur action figures, and paints. Those weren't pink or girly-themed, but they let me explore my ideas and my world in new ways. I'm jealous of the options kids have today to explore their world. Taking apart a clock to see how it works is nothing—imagine what I could have done with an Arduino kit!
The pink/blue divide establishes boundaries of social acceptance that remain with us throughout our lives, coloring our interactions with each other professionally and personally. This holiday season, if you're searching for a science toy, try to look beyond the packaging, whatever color it may be.
By the way, I've always wanted an ant farm. Any takers?