When a Four-Year-Old Girl Thinks Science Toys Are Only For Boys, Something is Very Wrong

Some friends had an upsetting family trip to the Natural History Museum in London.

They have a bright, bold, and delightful daughter called Zoe – she amused me no end when inventively used our toys to enthusiastically stage a river raid on Noah’s Ark by Spider-Man & Hulk to rescue the animals from the clutches of supervillains Annihilus & Joker. Sitting cosily inside the stereotyped marketing category of ‘Girl’ is seemingly not for her.

So at the Natural History Museum shop, it was a shock to her parents when then 4-year-old Zoe, after carefully inspecting the general science toys on display, sighed and lamented how they were only for boys.

Zoe’s mother was so upset about this that she wanted to cry. This is definitely not the way they wanted to bring their daughter up, and in fact they thought they were doing well by giving her trucks and other non-traditional girls toys. Their only conclusion was that this message must have come from outside the home.

It indicates the scale of the problem with gendered marketing. As parents, we do what we can to instil our children with positive & empowering messages and influences, to encourage them to discover what will engage & inspire them. But gendered marketing is so threaded into our everyday life – shops, TV, movies, magazines, and peers – that its effects will probably permeate through whatever defences we put up.

People like myself and others can rail against this. We may even convince the occasional retailer or manufacturer to change the way they define their products. One thing some toy makers have done is produce ‘girl’ versions of toys. You know the sort of thing, tool boxes, guns, and even science kits, that instead of being ‘normal’ colours, favour only shades of pink.

Some people (usually toy industry people) hail these as an ingenious development. But to me it simply reinforces the ‘pink is for girls’ mentality. They may play with the ‘perfume factory science kit’, but what happens when girls see an item that isn’t pink? They may assume it’s for boys and ignore it. What do boys take away from this? That only pink things are for girls, but this also excludes them from the likes of baby dolls and kitchen sets.

While we have this mentality, there will be countless stories where a girl decides a career isn’t for her because it’s not presented as such, or a boy may think being home with children is for mothers only. Children may privately carry on in this way of thinking their entire lives, perhaps even perpetuating it when they become adults. Who knows, maybe they’ll move into toy & children’s clothes marketing.

I actively encourage my daughter to play with toys that are not in the ‘pink aisle’, and to also wear clothes from the ‘boy’ section too. But as our daughter gets older, and seeks out her own media, the marketeers will be able to reach her directly. The peer group pressure upon her to conform to the identity portrayed in these messages will also grow.

The retailers and manufacturers in question claim they are only feeding demand, but if as a consequence our children can grow up with the belief that science – and any tech or engineering role – is only for boys, something is very wrong. At least Zoe’s parents became aware of the the issue, and have managed to turn it around with her, by getting her a dress-up labcoat, science kits, and they even had a female chemical engineer telling Zoe how cool her job is! Many children will not be this lucky.

I hope the colour palette of childhood in retail evolves. That pink and pastels stop being the exclusive domain of our girls. That the whole spectrum is opened up for all. Luckily, there are entrepreneurial companies spotting the gap in the market for something beyond pink and blue.

In the US, the #WearYourSuperheroes Day was created by a young girl in support of her sister, who was teased for her love of superheroes. Whenever my daughter runs around the playground in her beloved superhero cape, I know (because they tell us) many boys and girls notice and have their already formed assumptions challenged.

Girl Wearing Cape, Female Superhero, supergirl, superhero fancy dress, gendered marketing to childrenI dearly hope my daughter’s love of all kinds of colours, toys, and interests continues, that she doesn’t get directed exclusively down the pink aisle – and that we inspire others to join her too.

An earlier version of this post appeared here.

The first day of preschool drop-off went as expected – Unhappily

Well, the first day of preschool is already emotional.

I took my daughter to preschool earlier this morning. We’ve been explaining to her what it is for a while. How it’s like playgroup but without daddies & mummies. That a few of her friends will be there. And how daddy will take her, play for a little bit, go away for a bit, and then come back to take her home. She seemed ok with it.

So, the first day of preschool – all went as expected. Especially the ‘go away bit’ unfortunately.

10 mins after arriving, I gently backed away as she was occupied at the play-doh table, one of her favourite activities.

I watched from the kitchen. She was playing happily for a while, but then I could see it developing. The play-doh squishing slowed. Her head began to glance around. The lower lip began to quiver. Then the tears began to flow. Not sad tears, but utterly inconsolable distraught tears, with the barely discernible cries of “Daddy! I want my daddy!”.

I exchanged looks with her key worker, who indicated I should hang back while she tried to placate my daughter with a story. But it was to no avail, so she brought my daughter over to me.

My daughter held me tighter than she ever has, repeating over and over through the stream of tears “Daddy! I love my daddy!”. It was a scene reminiscent of the ending of The Railway Children.

Except, in this case the ‘Daddy’ (me) then abandoned said daughter when she was distracted by the outdoor play, as it was decided this was for the best in helping her adjust, but they would call me if she got too upset and couldn’t be calmed down.

So here I am at home, with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich for emotional comfort, staring at the phone hoping it doesn’t ring.

The 2 1/2 hour preschool session, that I thought wouldn’t be long enough to get much done, now seems to be lasting an eternity.

Delicious Crab Linguine with Chilli Recipe

Crab linguine with chilli, seafood pasta recipes, seafood linguine recipe, crab pasta recipe, crab linguine recipe, 
Crab linguine with chilli

Unlike actual sea water, dishes that taste of the sea are amazing. There are many ways to infuse your food with the essence of the ocean, such as using stocks or anchovies, but for this sumptuous seafood pasta recipe the key is using the brown crab meat as well as the white.

While white crab meat gives you the expected fresh and delicate flavour, it’s the brown meat where all the seafood flavour is. You must, MUST, include it in this dish. It’s cheaper too.

This seafood pasta recipe has a generous amount of crab. It could probably stretch to twice the amount of servings (while doubling the other ingredients). But this way is the culinary crabilicious treat you deserve…

Crab Linguine with Chilli recipe

Serves 2

  • 200g linguine
  • olive oil
  • Glass dry white wine
  • Punnet of sweet cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 red chilli, finely chopped
  • 1tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 100g brown crabmeat
  • 100g white crabmeat
  • Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

1. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium-low heat and fry the shallot, garlic, chilli and fennel seeds for a couple of minutes.

2. Add the tomatoes, let them sizzle a little, the pour in the wine and cook for about 10-15 mins, then stir in the brown crabmeat.

3. While the tomatoes are sizzling, cook the pasta in salted water until al dente.

4. Drain the pasta, reserving a few spoonfuls of the slightly salted cooking water.

5. Stir pasta into sauce along with the white crabmeat, squeezed lemon, and parsley. Add the extra water if the dish seems a little dry.

6. Divide between 2 warmed pasta bowls and serve your crab linguine with chilli immediately.

Prawn Linguine With Chilli (aka Linguine ai Gamberi) Recipe

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This Linguine ai gambrel, aka shrimp or prawn linguine with chilli, is a sumptuous seafood delight.

Prawn Linguine With Chilli (aka Linguine ai Gamberi) is a glorious pasta dish.

Whether you call this crustacean a shrimp or a prawn, what we can all agree on is that you must – if at all possible – make a stock with the heads & shells.

I first had this seafood pasta dish on honeymoon on the Italian island of Ponza, a favourite Mediterranean getaway for Romans seeking respite from the capital’s summer inferno. Delicious Italian seafood dishes top the menus of eateries across the island.

What ensures that this seemingly simple dish evokes the sea is the rich prawn stock, layered with the other flavours, all unified at the end by finishing the linguine in the seafood sauce. For an extra sumptuous seafood pasta dish use butter as well as oil to make the stock, and add a glug of wine when simmering tomatoes. You could also sieve the tomatoes before cooking for a smoother texture.

I have been generous with the serving size. The depth of flavour is incredibly moreish, so you should make plenty. It’s also advisable to have some nice bread on standby. However full you may be, you will likely still feel an overwhelming need to mop up any excess sauce.

Prawn Linguine With Chilli (aka Linguine ai Gamberi) recipe

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS:

  • 500g linguine
  • 800g large raw prawns/shrimp, shelled & deveined (retain heads & shells for stock)
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1-6 cloves garlic, finely chopped (adjust to taste)
  • 1-2 chillies, deseeded and finely chopped (adjust to taste)
  • 500g sweet cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • Stock (see below)
  • Juice & zest of 2 lemons
  • Large handful flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • Glass white wine (optional)

Stock

  • Olive oil
  • Prawn heads & shells
  • Large glass white wine
  • 250 ml water
  • Salt & pepper
  • 50g butter (optional)

METHOD:

  1. In a large saucepan on a medium heat, fry prawn heads & shells in generous glug of olive oil. When pink, add white wine. After a few minutes when alcohol has evaporated, add equal amount of water and simmer for approx 10 minutes. Crush heads & shells while cooking to release as much flavour as possible. Top up water if necessary, and season to taste. Strain and retain stock.
  2. In a large wide bottomed pan, fry shallot on a medium heat. After 5 minutes, add garlic & chilli and cook for a few more minutes. Add tomatoes and gently simmer for at least 15 minutes, gradually adding strained stock.
  3. Cook linguine in salted water (allegedly should be as salty as the Mediterranean) to about a minute or 2 less than packet instructions. If sauce gets too thick during pasta cooking, add some of the linguine water, tbsp at a time. Retain a cup of water before draining for same reason.
  4. Add prawns to sauce – for larger prawns cook for couple of minutes.
  5. Drain and stir in the linguine, add lemon zest, season to taste, and cook for further couple of minutes until pasta is al dente. Loosen sauce with some retained pasta water if necessary.
  6. Stir in lemon juice and remove from heat. Cover and leave for five minutes. Pasta will absorb even more flavour from the sauce, but without cooking further.
  7. Add parsley, and serve the sumptuous seafood pasta in warmed pasta bowls.

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LEGO Fusion: A new brick in the gender divide

LEGO’s new Fusion line may meld real & digital worlds, but it still divides our boys & girls.

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A LEGO ‘Universal Building Set’ ad from 1982, depicting a boy and girl playing together with the same LEGO. Crazy.

I had high hopes when I was alerted to ‘LEGO Fusion’. It was the word ‘fusion’, the combining of two distinct entities into one, that piqued my interest.

LEGO have rightly had a lot of flack for creating and marketing their product separately to boys and girls in recent years, especially given their history of previously being a universal toy. So would this new fusion line finally reunify the divided markets and be aimed at both?

The word fusion also brings to mind various scientific processes and ideas, most notably nuclear fusion. Could this be a line linked specifically to STEM fields, in which female inclusion and engagement remains an ongoing issue.

Don’t be silly.

Turns out the ‘fusion’ aspect is the connection of physical building with virtual construction, in the form of smartphone & tablet apps and associated physical sets. The virtual aspect appears to be inspired partly by The Sims and Civilisation – but mostly by Minecraft, the open world virtual brick building phenomenon. LEGO have stated that they wish they had invented Minecraft. In fact, it was created by a games designer from the Danish toymaker’s Nordic neighbour Sweden. Minecraft also has a large number of female enthusiasts (though evidence suggests they may often not admit to being female, given how women are often treated in online & gaming circles – but that’s another issue!).

So LEGO Fusion may not be the revolutionary science based line I imagined (I actually have no idea what that could be, but I was waiting to be dazzled), but still – it’s an innovation for the company to move its core product – bricks – into virtual space. Good for them. And it’s a concept clearly able to be enjoyed by boys and girls.

But then I saw this promotional video for it. It effectively conveys the blending of virtual and actual space, focusing on a child exploring the worlds that the line consists of.

First there’s Town Master, where you get to be a town planner/ruler. That’s followed by Battle Towers, a virtual war space where your constructed ‘Battle Tower’ has to fend off an enemy invasion. Then there’s Create & Race, where you build cars and race them. As ideas, they all look and sound pretty cool. But, there’s something important missing from the marketing hyperbole. Girls.

And then it happens.

Two girls are shown playing on the other side of the table from the boy. What are they doing – planning a town? Creating a battle tower? Engineering their own race car?

Nope.

The girls have their own app and set, within the gender ghetto of the LEGO Friends line. And what do the girls get to create in their fusion space? Their line is called Resort Designer, and they have to create… a dream beach resort.

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In LEGO Fusion, boys build towns and engineer machines, while girls get to build… a resort

So rather than fusion, we have division & limitation. Physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster Dr. Helen Czerski memorably responded on Twitter to the LEGO Fusion ad with “Ick”.

Dr. Czerski continued “Obviously, all girls are interested in is holiday resorts, while boys get on with building our cities.”

The whole reason advertising exists is that it works. If it can persuade us to part with our cash for a product, then it stands to reason that the reality it depicts is also convincing.

There’s nothing stopping you – or I – from countering these messages ourselves to our kids, but we’ll never be able to fend them off entirely. The seed will be planted, that will potentially grow into deep rooted conviction that may see a girl choosing very early on in life not to embark on a life in science, technology, engineering or manufacturing, and may lead to an adult male choosing not employ a woman in one of these fields, because from childhood, without even realising it, they have learned that these areas are inherently male.

I don’t think LEGO is evil, that it is trying to socially engineer a world where women are directed to a pastel coloured inconsequential cul-de-sac while the men take care of the important stuff. They’re just trying to sell their plastic bricks. But doing it by entrenching gender segregation, and limiting the life choices of our girls, is simply wrong. I can’t say it plainer than that.

Imagine, if instead of gender, LEGO based their marketing around race. Imagine if the Fusion ads showed white people (as they do) playing with the Town, Racing, and Battle lines – and then depicted stereotyped minorities in and using sets based on sports, hospitality, or a factory? Imagine if they produced market research that showed that this was what the minorities in question wanted. That they were just supplying demand. It would rightly be labelled as racism.

Oh god, I do hope I haven’t given them a new marketing angle to try out…

Back in the real world, my daughter will continue to play with her hand-me-down LEGO, that hails from the time when it was a universal toy. And maybe when LEGO pulls back on the gender based madness, we’ll hand over some real money for new LEGO.

As long as it remains backwards compatible with the concept of universal building.

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The sold out, universally acclaimed, LEGO Ideas Research Institute. Hopefully not the last you’ll see of it.

One set I would have parted cash with was their much heralded Female Scientist set.

In a bad month of gender news for LEGO, they also revealed that this set, which I didn’t even get a chance to buy, is in fact a limited edition.

Currently sold out, while LEGO have said they are going to release more stock, there is no indication that this means they will actually manufacture any more.

If you – like me – think this obviously popular set should be mass produced, then please sign this petition created by Melissa Atkins Wardy (Author of “Redefining Girly”, owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies).

Apparently, a new LEGO design must achieve sales of £106,000 to break even. At £15.99 a pop, this set needs to sell about 6,600 units – so the petition needs to reach at least that figure to show there’s a viable market for it (though the fact it achieved 10,000 public votes to get made in the first place should be enough!).

So please sign and share!