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The Pink Paradox: Tensions in How STEM Toys are Marketed Toward Girls

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2024 Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity (CoNECD)


Arlington, Virginia

Publication Date

February 25, 2024

Start Date

February 25, 2024

End Date

February 27, 2024

Conference Session

Track 4: Technical Session 4: The Pink Paradox: Tensions in How STEM Toys are Marketed Toward Girls

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions

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Paper Authors


Theresa Green Purdue University

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Dr. Theresa Green is a postdoctoral researcher at Purdue University with a Ph.D. in Engineering Education. Her research interests include K-12 STEM integration, curriculum development, and improving diversity and inclusion in engineering.

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Artre Reginald Turner Purdue University at West Lafayette

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Artre Turner is a dedicated graduate student deeply invested in advancing the field of engineering education. With a methodical and inquisitive approach to his studies, he's pioneering research that bridges video gaming with engineering learning principles. His academic journey has been marked by mentorship and instruction, a legacy from his tenure as a STEM tutor and supplemental instructor. Artre's discipline and leadership skills, finely honed during his time as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, now serve as the foundation for his scholarly pursuits. His ambition is to forge a career in academia, where he can influence the next generation of engineers with an educational framework that is as rigorous as it is innovative.

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Ruth Wertz P.E. Purdue University at West Lafayette (COE) Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Wertz has earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Trine University, a M.S. in Civil Engineering from Purdue University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education.

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The purpose of this narrative literature review is to describe the current state of knowledge about the tensions present in how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) toys are marketed to young children. Effective toy marketing is essential for engaging kids in the types of play that support spatial skill development and engineering thinking skills. The continued underrepresentation of women earning engineering degrees and persisting into the engineering workforce suggests that continued efforts to improve women’s participation in engineering are still very much needed. A critical component of this effort is focusing on ways children develop a sense of engineering identity that supports early interests in engineering-related subjects, and ensuring that girls are included in these activities and experiences, not just physically, but culturally. Children’s engineering identity may develop throughout pre-adolesence, and play is one avenue through which this development occurs. Hence, our interest in why girls do or don’t engage in play with certain kinds of building toys.

Throughout this paper, the terms girl and boy are generally used to either represent biological sex assigned at birth, or two extremes of a gender-based lens we applied to a collection of toys to assess who was or was not included in its target audience. Specifically, this paper is focused on a review of influential toy companies that have employed strategies to market building-related toys specifically to girls. While we have used categorical labels of girl, boy, and neutral as a schema to interpret how cultural messaging may be perceived, our intention is not to imply that children themselves, or the ways they experience and express gender, will neatly fall the same categories.

It is widely believed that girls are drawn to toys that involve some form of narrative or storytelling. Two popular STEM toys of interest that market to girls using narrative storylines include LEGO Friends and GoldieBlox, both of which contain character-driven stories that appear across multiple forms of media beyond the toy itself, including books and videos. While these toys were designed to capture girls’ interest in construction play and engineering, they have been criticized for using traditionally feminine themes, hobbies, and color palettes in their marketing approach. This tension that is negotiated in STEM toy marketing and design is what the authors call “the pink paradox,” and serves as the focal point of this literature review.

The “pink paradox” refers to the tension that toymakers face when marketing STEM toys in a way that appeals to girls without sending harmful messages that may reinforce gendered stereotypes or exclude certain children from playing with these toys. This literature review provides an overview of gendered toy marketing in the United States and highlights the critiques that toys like LEGO Friends and GoldieBlox have received for using traditional gendered stereotypes to appeal specifically to girls. For example, this review found that both of these toys use pink and purple and employ themes traditionally associated with femininity in their pieces and branding. These toys also use traditionally feminine appearances to attract girls (e.g., the white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed “princess”) and reinforce what an ideal consumer of such a toy might look like, thereby excluding children who don’t identify with these archetypes, with girls of color and non-binary children perhaps being the most affected by this exclusion. STEM toys were also found to present narratives drawn from traditionally feminine hobbies and interests, such as caring for animals, planning parties, and focusing on friendships, which assume a specific set of life experiences and interests. Using stereotypes in marketing these toys may be harmful to young children, especially those who are already less likely to see themselves in represented in engineering, and are also developing their engineering identity, sense of self, and future career aspirations.

This review concludes by describing areas of future research, namely, the need to understand the relationship between toy narrative, engineering identity, and children’s interest in and access to STEM toys. Understanding the relationships between these constructs can help girls develop spatial skills and interest in engineering through play, which may ultimately encourage them to pursue engineering pathways in the future.

Green, T., & Turner, A. R., & Wertz, R. (2024, February), The Pink Paradox: Tensions in How STEM Toys are Marketed Toward Girls Paper presented at 2024 Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity (CoNECD), Arlington, Virginia. 10.18260/1-2--45487

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