INaction Heroes for Girls?

In the mid-1990s, I accompanied a small team from NASA to the New York City Toy Fair to explore ways to shape NASA’s brand through product licensing. The delegation included NASA’s current Deputy, Lori Garver, who was the head of NASA’s Policy and Plans at that time. (The old Code Z, Land of Misfit Toys…for those of you around NASA at that time.)

On the trip, Lori posed this question:

“Why doesn’t NASA have more female executives?”

We’ll get back to that question later.

We met with brand management and licencing experts, and toured the toy fair. My first time at this event, I was surprised to discover the toys were separated by gender: toys for girls on one side, toys for boys on the other.

Toys for Girls: Wall-to-wall dolls. Barbie dolls. Big dolls. Little dolls. Doll accessories. Our host was quick to point out the new features for dolls, such as hair combs that instantly change doll hair color, jogging outfits to keep Barbie looking good and fit, and a newer version Ken doll for Barbie to date.

Pretty in Pink

Pretty in Pink Barbies

The girl section was the very vision of Pretty in Pink. “Every girl’s dream,” so the toymakers wanted us to believe.

Yet, the very pretty pinkness of it all screamed out to me:

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

As the mother of two daughters, I was horrified by the subliminal message:

  • You are for display only.
  • You must look pretty and change clothes often.
  • You must speak only what your master says.

Pretty. Pink. Passive…

INaction Heroes for Girls!

In the interest of full disclosure, I never really got the whole Barbie thing, though my sister and one daughter did. I hated having to come up with things for Barbie to say. And changing her clothes? What a total pain. I preferred playing outside. (And still do.)

Now, let’s move on to the boy section of the Toy Fair.

Toys for Boys: A virtual wonderland of cool racing cars, rocket ships, science gadgets and more. Lots of noise and frenetic energy.

I felt totally at home. I wanted to play with everything!

The very fact that a wall separated the girls from playing with all the COOL toys — literally walling them off from exploration and adventure — made me angry.

Do you wonder why we don’t have more female executives at NASA?

Are you thinking, why this blogpost? Why now?


Pottery Barn Toy Vacuum

I just received a Pottery Barn Kids catalog in the mail. I opened it up to find cooking utensils, kitchen appliances, irons and ironing boards for purchase for girls. EVEN today! Gifts for boys: yep, action required.

WHY oh WHY would ANY kid select a toy vacuum cleaner over a spaceship, if given a choice?

Color them pink, if you want, but PLEASE offer adventure toys to girls.

So, I wonder: how many female astronauts played with dolls? How many didn’t? I don’t have the answer. Just curious….

Think before you buy this gift-giving season. Give girls a chance!


Filed under culture, leadership, NASA, space

15 responses to “INaction Heroes for Girls?

  1. I also work at NASA and have two daughters. I could not agree with you more!

  2. Lee

    My favorite toys growing up? Lincoln logs, legos, and my brother’s GI Joes. I NEVER played with Barbie – she was a wuss.

    We’re adopting in 2010. Our first child is a 13-year-old boy. He’ll be getting a cookbook for his b-day along with a lego set he’s requested.

  3. I hated most dolls and I can’t stand pink. I completely agree about girls’ toys (and always preferred to play outside, too, if possible). The notion of playing house for FUN was baffling – weren’t chores pretty much punishment for growing up? lol

    Great piece, we should be long past these stereotypes, especially now that we know gender is not so simple as “masculine” and “feminine”. Kids know what they like and they’ll make it clear, let’s make them feel good about their choices.

  4. tjfrantx

    Beth, Like you I wanted to be anywhere other than inside as a child. I wanted to fly a plane and belong to the Civil Air Patrol. The problem, I was a girl. It seemed so unfair.

    Well, I didn’t learn to fly but I was an Air Traffic Controller. As women, we have an opportunity to be role models for the children in our lives; boys and girls, and encourage them to be all they can be.

    Some girls might like pink and fluffy and others, like my grandniece Emmalie, like bugs and lizards and all things entomology at the age of 10. Some boys like art and music and others, like my grandnephew Colton is all about John Deere and his John Deere cowboy boots at the age of 3.

    I agree with you Beth, let’s encourage the children in our lives to be who they are and not who the world thinks they should be.

    • bethbeck

      I hung upside down in the trees — avoiding pretend alligators in the grass. My brother sat perched in the trees reading. My younger sister played with Barbies. Of my two daughters, one played with tea sets, the other with swords. Go figure.

      No matter how I raised my girls, though, society tried to press them into “the mold.” When my youngest was in 4th grade, the girls at school insisted she couldn’t be Darth Vader for Halloween. (She’d saved her allowance for weeks to pay for the costume.) She ended up dressing in a different costume for the party with schoolmates at our house, then changed into Darth Vader for trick-or-treating with me after they all left. Ah, the choices we make.

  5. Beth-
    GREAT article! We have worked hard to get tons of exciting, interactive toys for our 4-month-old daughter. It has been a real surprise for us to see how much out there is still geared only for boys!

    Thanks for pointing out the *action* component of “boys toys”. We’ll definitely use that concept when looking for future presents or buying for other girls we know.

    I think there are still ‘girl’ toys and activities that are creative, active, and fun. Sewing, cooking, and the like are still ok! Perhaps we need to push those skills into “boys” as much as we work on Transformers for girls.

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  7. I’m just starting to make spacey toys to immerse into culture. It would be cool to take these ideas into consideration. Would also love to be able to play with NASA’s technologies/materials/concepts into the childhood things that are played with, treasured, allowing dreams and imagination to take off. Holler if for a brainstorm Beth. We have common friends. =)

  8. Oh, Beth, this entry hits squarely at the heart of so many issues. Thank you so much for writing it.

    Whether through through sheer pig-headedness, luck or really great parents–or a combination of the three–all girls and young women need to discover there is no such thing as a “boys-only toy”. Such a thing cannot exist because there is no such thing as a “boys-only” thought, aspiration or goal.

    Human spaceflight, science and technology are powerful tools at our disposal to ensure all girls, young ladies and women know they are encouraged, nay, EXPECTED to seek every opportunity to explore new things–regardless of whether they came in PINK or not. We live in a age of endless amounts of information, but now more than ever, nothing beats experience. One of the best and first ways we humans experience new things is through play. A children’s toy expo, or a children’s toy aisle, should only have one section and that is — EXPLORE!

    Thanks again for the inspiring post.

    – Shannon
    A gal whose childhood Christmas list included: chemistry set, telescope, microscope, a star chart, various computers, a trip to Space Camp USA, endless numbers of books & educational magazines… and not a single Barbie doll (easy enough to get my fill of that when visiting friends’ houses 😉

  9. Danger Will Robinson!
    Indeed, our Lost in Space B9 Robot Builders Club would welcome some more women Robot Builders!


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  11. LI_Mom

    When my son was a toddler, he LOVED toys that would be considered “girl’s toys.” Plastic cups & saucers for having snacks with his stuffed animal friends (he served Milkbones he ‘borrowed’ from my mom’s house) & he had to have a toy vacuum also.

    Maybe these gender specific toys would seem less gender specific if they came in ‘neutral’ colors?

    I think children gravitate to where their unique personalities lead them. An active girl with a ‘girl’s toy’ will definitely find a way to express HER sense of self. Even dollies can be taught to fly from the top of a staircase or to scuba dive in a bathtub, if a girl is inherently bored with playing dressup.

    As parents, the best we can do is provide children with a range of toys that we think will spark their interest and education & then let their imaginations soar.

    (My son didn’t grow up to be a timid little neat freak, btw. Sadly, cleaning was just a passing phase, as evidenced by his bedroom. lol)

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  13. Well, as you know I’m kinda partial to Barbies. But not the display ones — I like the “Working” ones. Technical Barbies, actually. And most of them have very short sales lives and very little shelf space.

    I don’t mind that there are “domestic’ toys. I really loved my Easy Bake oven (and still have the scars to prove it). What irks me is that retailers have large signs that say “Boys Toys” and “Girls Toys”, helping parents fell bad about buying a vacuum or a pink action figure for their sons, or a Shuttle Lego set for their girls.

    It seems that toys marketed to kids and parents to much better if they are pinked up for girls. Retailers and manufacturers are going to what sells. So I put the onus on the people buying the stuff. The “girls” aisle at most stores is an explosion of pink. That’s not by coincidence.

    When I go to find supplies for my Technical Barbies, I get kinda sick at the selection in the girls aisles. I tweet about the most ridiculous ones, but I’m sad to see them, because I know that parents will scoop up shopping cart loads of the questionably dressed ones and pass over the Computer Engineer Barbie of the Architect Barbie. Heck, the Astronaut Barbie can’t even bend her legs now days. Why does anyone think their daughter needs and “I Can Be A….Cat Litter Box Cleaner” Barbie? (yes, it’s real, but with a different name).

    Retailers sell what sells. So why are we as a society literally buying into this stereotyping?

  14. beth beck

    Reblogged this on Bethbeck's Blog and commented:

    I can’t stop playing this new GoldieBlox video featuring toys for girls. All I can say is: it’s ABOUT TIME!!

    The goal of GoldieBlox is to build games that inspire future female engineers. Here’s what their website states:

    “At GoldieBlox, our goal is to get girls building. We’re here to help level the playing field in every sense of the phrase. By tapping into girls’ strong verbal skills, our story + construction set bolsters confidence in spatial skills while giving young inventors the tools they need to build and create amazing things.

    In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math…and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered “boys’ toys”. By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.

    We believe there are a million girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet. We think GoldieBlox can show them the way.”

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