Can More Gender-Neutral Toys & Apps Lead to More Diversity in STEM?

Is your daughter BFFs with Emma yet? She may be now that girls are playing with LEGOS in higher numbers. The toymaker has found success with its lines that are specifically designed for girls and include girl figures like Emma.

Compared with 50 years ago, most toys are targeted to either boys or girls and are rife with gender-stereotypes, as is certainly the case with LEGO and has even been attributed to the success of these newer ‘girly’ lines. But more problematic, there are more toys marketed to boys that could expose them to skills they could use as adults in paying jobs, like computer science and engineering. Meanwhile, despite 57% of women working outside the home, toys marketed to girls still largely focus on the domestic realm, like dolls, clothes, kitchenware and even toy vacuums.

Outcomes from the differences in toys become visible at a young age. A new study suggests Disney Princess culture, which is marketed to girls, can influence preschoolers to be more susceptible to potentially damaging gender stereotypes. These may be limiting in the long term for young women if they lead to less confidence or interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For example, research in teens confirms gender-based differences in digital literacy and stereotypical distributions in areas of interest and use of digital technologies.   

The impact is seen into adulthood. Combined, women only hold 29 percent of jobs in STEM fields. Fostering diversity in STEM has been gaining more traction in recent years and it can start with broadening the kinds of games our kids play, including by engaging youth in creative ways.

Girls today have more choices of toys that promote STEM concepts, but usually in a context or color scheme that meets female stereotypes – examples include Project MC2 dolls, and building toys Roominate and Goldiblox.  These are great advancements and may be effective for some girls, but what about for children who don’t identify with traditional gender stereotypes or may not even identify with their biological sex?

Because children’s interests and skills so clearly can be shaped by the toys with which they play and the media they consume, recently, the White House released a fact sheet suggesting that toys and media must stop promoting gender stereotypes.

Gender-neutral toys show great promise. A study of more than 100 toys found that gender stereotyped toys were “less likely to promote cognitive development” than gender-neutral toys. While the Discovery Store, Marbles The Brain Store, and Fat Brain Toys have many gender-neutral offerings, they are often expensive. 

The reality is that today’s children turn to technology for entertainment. The average age now for getting a first smartphone is 10.3 years old and even children under 4 years old are frequently using mobile devices. We, like most parents, see our children, aged 6 to 11 years old, using apps more and more.  

Although our expertise comes from the seemingly disparate fields of Chemistry and Gender and Sexuality Studies, we realize a similar vision in believing apps are one logical area for more gender-neutral offerings. Especially as using apps on mobile devices is an encouraged and socially acceptable form of play.

App development that is gender-neutral and focused on curiosity and creativity enables open-ended play that fosters dynamic and imaginative thinking.  But it also can help expose all children to STEM and build their self-efficacy in these areas.  This may be particularly important for girls. It’s also important to all children from many marginalized communities or, even tomboys and “emotional” boys and any other child that doesn’t feel she or he fits a traditionally ‘brainy’ stereotype and, therefore, may not think they are cut out for STEM. 

Let’s consider three examples of apps that do this. Kids play with Toca Blocks by creating and exploring anything they can imagine using whacky blocks. In Tiny Bop’s Robot Factory, children design robots from various pieces and then test them in obstacle courses. Tynker exposes children to computer programming, including building their own apps, through game-based exercises that include both gender-neutral options and ones more aligned with traditional gender-based interests. All of these programs can be used at home or on mobile devices and some are increasingly being integrated into school-based curricula. 

Among their many benefits, these apps can increase users’ self-efficacy in STEM and increase the likelihood of a STEM-related career choice. By being gender-neutral, they have the potential to build these traits in a more diverse population of children. Apps have the possibility to not only disrupt gender stereotypes and access but also to allow kids not to submit to race and class stereotypes. Ultimately, this may help our STEM fields become as diverse and imaginative as our country.

Relying on app-based solutions to improve STEM diversity requires that we bridge the ‘participation gap’ of inequities in digital access and literacy that exist in underserved communities.  The MacArthur Foundation’s program on Digital Media and Learning aims to address this issue. It funds organizations such as Digital Youth Network, who are working to understand and support ‘anytime and anywhere’ learning opportunities for all.

And of course, toys and apps won’t solve everything. Many prospective elementary school teachers, for instance, already hold biases about kids and math, presuming that girls don’t like it. These biases in primary school are shown to affect girls permanently—in middle school and high school girls are less likely to take advanced math classes. So we need educators to be aware of their biases and work to change them.  But giving elementary school aged kids free range to develop their passions through technology could be a solution.

Let’s start now to provide for really inclusive technological engagement. If that’s one of the key desired features, then the future of STEM would be so much more interesting.




About and

Jillana Enteen is assistant professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University. She is currently researching trans medical tourism and trans surgeries in Thailand. She is a member of the Op-Ed Project’s Public Voices Fellowship at NU.
Shannon Haymond, PhD is a clinical chemist at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. She is a member of the OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship at NU.