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Cambridge University Science Magazine

 It was an unusually hot Christmas day — but then again, it is always unusually hot in Argentina in December, every year more than the last. While our parents were napping, exhausted from hosting the entire family the night before, my brother and I revelled in our brand new Christmas presents. I had received a book, a lovely collection of my favourite comics, and he had got a chemistry set, with all the bells and whistles, little plastic beakers and colourful substances in small transparent Ziploc bags. Within the hour, I had grown bored of my book and started pestering my brother to let me play with the chemistry set. I was unsuccessful: ‘Es de nenes!’ (‘It’s a boy’s toy!’) he said ‘¿No ves? ¡No es para nenas!’ (‘Can’t you see? It’s not meant for girls!’)

 I did not argue — he was, in my mind, absolutely right! The packaging was all blue, and there was a little boy with safety glasses and a coat on the cover, wearing a cap with a bright slogan reading ‘Future chemist!’. The thing is, the Spanish language is highly gendered. That slogan read as purely masculine, which, added to the rest of the packaging, clearly indicated that my brother was right, and I was not meant to play with his present. Of course, my ban on playing with my brother’s new toy didn’t last long — the next day I borrowed it without permission while he sneaked out to play with my barbies behind my back. 

 Now, here is the thing: while anecdotal, and seemingly inconsequential, this little exchange on Christmas day was anything but unusual. Since the end of WWII, marketing companies for children’s toys and clothes started to gender their products in a simple, but effective, scheme to increase revenue. This corporate strategy lingered, and its effects festered: we find ourselves now, almost 80 years later, standing on a supermarket aisle divided in the middle, blue to one side and pink to the other. On the pink side, we see a mountain of make-up, tiny prams, fake ovens, and small, frankly terrifying-looking dolls. On the blue side, we find cars, soldiers, toy guns, and plastic trucks. 

 It has been long established that the high genderization of products for children affects their development, and has the potential to impact even their mental health and relationships growing up. A study conducted at Purdue University found that toys strongly thought of as ‘feminine’ were associated with physical appearance and domestic skills, whereas strongly ‘masculine’ toys were found to have violent and competitive components. The appearance-oriented princess toys and the violence-oriented soldier toys form a dichotomy that is extremely hard to ignore. However, the issue of gendered toys goes beyond this violent-versus-pretty division. Studies found science- and creativity- related toys, in particular those with a strong STEM focus, are much more likely to be marketed towards boys than girls. 

 Take the well-known multibillion-dollar company Lego as an example. In many metrics, the biggest toy company in the world: their small plastic bricks are an internationally recognized trademark. As a company, Lego was built on a remarkably smart idea: instead of selling already assembled plastic toys, they decided to give children the chance to build their own. The company’s success grew exponentially since its beginning, and now, not only does the Lego group rank amongst the world's most reputable companies, but their toys have shown to enhance a particularly valuable set of skills in young children, many of them related to STEM, such as mathematical skills, spatial awareness and problem-solving. This is all to say, Lego is a pretty big deal, and also a pretty cool toy. It is not a company you would expect to find itself involved in controversy.

 However,  back in 2011, when a market research study by the company itself revealed that 90% of its customers were boys, Lego decided to jump on the proven strategy of making a line of their products pink: they launched the Friends line, a product with a heavier emphasis on characters and storytelling, marketed to girls. This decision sparked a huge debate between two very distinct factions of parents. Gender-neutral advocates called for Lego to go back to gender-neutral packaging and remove all gender bias from their marketing and products, while parents opposing this view labelled it as exaggerated and overly political. Finally, after a survey revealed their marketing strategies could be impacting the interest girls have in engineering and other STEM careers, the Lego group committed to removing gender bias from their packaging. 

 Lego is of course not the only example. Construction toys as a whole are overwhelmingly marketed towards little boys, and the differences do not stop there. Telescopes, skeletons and microscopes are usually found in the boy's aisle. Studies show that, beyond marketing, science and maths toys are two to three times more likely to be purchased for boys than for girls. Girls get unicorns and mermaids plush toys; boys get astronauts and dinosaurs. 

 The effects of these early differences may have repercussions later on. We have heard many times that there is no such a thing as a gender gap, but rather, there is an ‘interest gap’: girls just do not sign up for STEM. Many have made the point that this interest gap is normal, even natural, some go as far as saying that girls’ and boys’ brains are genetically wired to be interested in different things. These claims are not only scientifically inaccurate, but they also ignore the fact that our interests are overwhelmingly influenced by the environment we grow up in. People buy toys for kids before they are even born. We make decisions about what they will and won't like and who they will likely want to be before they can even speak, and surround our ‘sensitive girls’ with caring related toys and our ‘creative boys’ with strategy related ones. Years later, creativity- or strategy-related video games, such as Minecraft or Age of Empires, are heavily marketed towards boys. And in the end, boys are more likely to choose to go into STEM careers and to remain in them. It is important to remark that, beyond creating interest and increasing engagement, there is a myriad of institutional issues within STEM that need to be addressed to support women and non-binary individuals at every point in their careers.

The movement for gender-neutral toys is not trying to politicise your kids or come for your children’s gender expression, far from it. It advocates for equal opportunities for every child - we are doing children a disservice by gendering toys, preventing girls from the benefits of active, problem-solving gameplay, as well as boys from the perks of emphatic, story-oriented games. One day, hopefully, when you go into a store hoping to buy a present for your siblings’ child, the first question won’t be 'Is it a boy or a girl?'

Maria Julia Maristany is a second-year PhD student in physics at Robinson College. Artwork by Biliana Tchavdarova Todorova.