From toys to magazines, we’re pushing girls out of STEM

Our 18-year-old contributor, Ishwari Nagnur, shares her thoughts about the way gender stereotypes are holding girls back from future careers in STEM

Career | Gender | Girls
Photo: MPR News

The story persists: Girls seek to be princesses waiting for their Prince Charming, while boys innovate, create, and ultimately save the day. Lately, this stereotype has become even more pronounced. As gendered toys continue to be produced (princesses and Barbies for girls, tools and toy computers for boys), we often forget their true implications. Taking a step back, we must consider: Are we encouraging girls, to the best of our abilities, to pursue their career aspirations? What are younger girls actually interested in?

According to Girls’ Life magazine and the creators of children’s toys and literature, the answer is evident. Young girls strive to be beautiful and are primarily concerned with the affairs of vanity, while boys are focused on their future careers and are encouraged to pursue technology and science.

Career | Gender | Girls
Photo: Hip2Save

Girls’ Life, a popular teen magazine, is advertised as “the ultimate guide to all things girl.”  However, the magazine’s content only includes tips on fashion, beauty, and relationships. Is this really what constitutes “all things girl”? Girls’ Life also boasts a subscription audience of 1.9 million. With such a large reach, the content of their magazine is directly influencing an entire demographic of impressionable young girls.

The male counterpart of Girls’ Life, Boys’ Life, is aimed towards boys age 9 through 16 and features STEM articles, career inspiration blogs, and more. Why would these topics not be of interest to girls and targeted to them as well?

In the September/October 2015 issues, Boys’ Life magazine featured a special STEM publication discussing potential STEM careers, while the Girls’ Life issue featured headlines such as “Up your beauty game”. Five years later, Girls’ Life continues to publish magazines only promoting appearance, with headlines like, “Your Makeup Bag Misses You”. The difference is clear: One issue promotes career and creation, while the other promotes attractiveness and style.

When girls are bombarded with such materialistic content at the tween/teen age, interest disparities are inevitable. These influences directly correlate with high school girls’ deteriorating confidence in mathematics and science. A recent study (Hand, S. et al, 2017) to explore gender role bias and confidence in STEM fields revealed that high school girls reported lower self-efficacy in mathematics and science subjects compared to boys. Interests developed in high school are far more likely to be explored later on at university. Girls’ lack of self-confidence in STEM subjects discourages their pursuit in the future.

We need to become more aware of the messages we are sending to young girls. The problem isn’t just with magazines such as Girls’ Life— it is with the message that beauty comes first.

Even coloring and drawing books are designed according to whether they are targeting boys or girls. For instance, Buster Books sells two gendered versions of a coloring book. The ‘boy’ book is titled, “The Brilliant Boys’ Coloring Book” while the ‘girl’ version  is titled, “The Beautiful Girl’s Coloring Book”. Why are girls only considered beautiful, their main trait being their appearance, while boys are brilliant? Every girl should feel intelligent and capable of becoming whatever they want to be.

Furthermore, textbooks globally portray stereotyped careers for men and women.  For example, textbooks from Kazakhstan (right) and Turkey (left) depict a young girl dreaming about marriage and taking care of a child, while a young boy dreams about becoming a doctor.

These textbooks have profound implications and perpetuate stereotypes on the younger generation. The study mentioned above (Hand, S. et al, 2017) also asked high school students to associate feminine and masculine traits to either a scientist or humanities professional. Results revealed that students associated masculine traits with scientists and feminine traits with the humanities. Why in 2020 do we still condone such stereotypes and subject our girls to this negative exposure?

Career | Gender | Girls
Image: BBC

As a young woman aspiring to pursue a STEM career, I have grown up with the stereotypical toys and social media influences that promote the ‘beauty first’ message. It is imperative to build young girls’ confidence, not hinder them with stereotypes. To do so, companies need to re-imagine their gendered branding and labeling, beginning from products intended for babies. Media and publications should portray girls and boys as having equal capabilities and interests in STEM fields. In order to expand the STEM pipeline for future female professionals, we must also provide our younger generation with the proper role models to inspire them. This conversation must be pushed and continually explored, beyond magazines and toys; it should be prevalent in our conversations and daily lives. After all, we young girls are not just pretty princesses. We are builders, pioneers, and pathfinders.

Career | Gender | Girls
Updated Cover: Katherine Young

Reference: Hand, S. et al, 2017.

Ishwari Nagnur is a rising High School senior and aspiring STEM professional. She is a passionate STEM student and an advocate for better science and technology access for girls. This summer, Ishwari is an intern at Meytier Inc., an AI-based platform advocating for women in technology. You can follow along with her work on her Instagram.


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