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The Toy Aisle Matters More Than Ever: Girls and Computing

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Valerie Barr

Credit: ACM-W

I have a multi-decade perspective on women in computing, having learned to program in 1972 in high school when it was definitely not the norm for people to learn to program in high school. I went on to study Applied Mathematics in college because they did not yet offer a CS degree, but I did what computing I could.  It was the late 1970s and I also studied anthropology and political science and was very much part of feminist activities on my campus. Today I still bring that lens to my day to day faculty position, and my work on behalf of ACM-W.

It is against that backdrop that I have been thinking about the change in the toy aisle over the last 40 years. I am sad to say that I think the toy aisle is more gendered than ever. Yes, I grew up in the era of Barbie and Ken and GI Joe, but even Barbie was less distasteful then than she is now. The toy aisle was not nearly as rigidly pink and blue as it is today (I will note that this is not a solely US situation. Read about the artist JeongMee Yoon's "The Pink & Blue Project").

In the U.S. we talk a lot about the 1984 peak in women's percentage of CS undergraduate degrees, and there is a lot of speculation about what happened to spark the fall off. I cannot help but think that the increasingly gendered nature of the toy aisle contributed.  So join me for a walk down the decades and the toy aisle.

In January, 1976, I was reading Scientific American and encountered this ad from Questar Telescopes (clicking on each image in this post will bring it up in a larger size in another browser tab).

I sent them a letter in which I basically said "Wouldn't it be nice to have a picture of a boy and a girl and a line that said Let Them Grow With a Questar?". I received a very nice reply in which they explained that the two boys were brothers, and that they also had a sister, so I should stay tuned. In June, 1977, they ran the ad again.

As you can see, it is the same picture, but at least the title of the text was changed. And then in December, 1977, they ran the new ad.


Next we move forward to 1981, a time period in which Lego was running wonderful ads, like the one shown here.

Their ads in that period, taken in aggregate, encouraged both boys and girls to build and be creative with Legos. This matched up with a product that was quite gender-neutral. But then Lego started product lines aimed at girls, which meant the "other" product line was for boys. Many of the "girl Legos" were not compatible with the other Legos, so it limited a child's ability to combine sets. This continued from the late 1980s into the early 2000s, when Lego had to retrench corporate practices. They dropped the "girl Legos" for a while, but did nothing to make the remaining Legos as gender neutral as they had once been. They finally reintroduced a girls line in 2012, and we can see how they advertise this line on their website today.

Of course, a trip down the toy aisle would not be complete without some discussion of Barbie. Barbie was an astronaut back in 1965, and in 2013 they launched "Mars Explorer Barbie". She may have her "stylish spacesuit with pink reflective accents, helmet, space pack and signature pink space boots", but at least the box shows her out there on Mars by the Rover. A few years ago Mattel added "Computer Engineer Barbie" to their line up, and this felt like a small forward step. But that step was completely undone this week when the companion book was released, "Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer". In the book, Barbie designs a computer game and then turns to some boys to do all the coding. In the book Barbie says "I'm only creating the design ideas...I'll need Steven and Brian's help to turn it into a real game" and yet at the end she still pronounces herself an engineer. This is sad on many levels. First, the freelance author who wrote the book did not question the assignment, did not suggest an alternative story line. Second, it defies reason that Random House would actually request and then publish this.  Third, this book can set back considerably efforts to engage young girls in computing and engineering.  It sends girls a very negative and incorrect message about the role they can play, and it reinforces the notion that only boys can do coding.

The highlight over the last 24 hours has been the incredible response online, both on social media and on listserves such as the ACM SIGCSE list. The best response has been the re-mix effort that turns the story into a very positive tale for girls in CS. Check it out

What we learn from all of this is that, 40 years later, vigilance is still necessary, and we have to remind companies that not everyone will buy into their vision of a gender segregated toy aisle.


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