How 'boy toys' and 'girl toys' are causing big problems in the tech industry.

The market for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is one of the fastest growing in the United States.

If you're still wondering why, just look around: Millions of people are carrying small computers in their pockets. We can play the most advanced video games in the world on a device thinner than a pencil. Our watches can track and send our heartbeats to loved ones on the other side of the planet, and every 20-something with a plaid shirt secretly dreams of inventing the next Facebook.

Talking is texting, dating is Tinder-ing, and ordering hangover takeout is an experience joyously free of human contact. Not to mention all the progress and innovations in health and medicine that keep many of us alive longer and longer every day.


But there's a problem in the world of STEM that needs to be fixed.

Despite the fact that women make up more than half of the professional and technical work force in the United States, women are massively underrepresented in STEM careers and have been for decades.

Margaret Hamilton, a software engineer who helped get Apollo XI to the moon. Photo by NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011, women held less than 25% of STEM jobs. Overall, that's an increase since the 1970s, but in computer occupations, women's representation has actually declined since the 1990s.

So why — specifically — is this a problem?

Well, if underrepresentation of an entire gender in America's fastest growing job market doesn't do it for you, consider this: Lack of diversity and representation isn't just bad for progress, it's bad for business.

Especially in STEM industries which are based on innovative ideas and creative thinking — not having women in the room when designing something meant to be used by people across the gender spectrum is entirely unproductive. When all-male teams create products, they often miss potential solutions because they experience the world differently than women do. When women join those teams, products that had been designed by-men-for-men are adapted and become more useful to the entire population.

All images and data from FatWallet: STEM toys for girls.

It turns out, women get turned away from STEM careers pretty early in life.

Society starts to impose gender roles on kids much earlier than you might think.

"By age 3, children can start articulating gender and racial stereotypes," says Catherine Hill, a researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). "They are learning by what they see, and they are forming stereotypes from the world around them — from parents, teachers, daycare staff."

Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

That means that while girls are encouraged to play with Barbies, they are sometimes being told that Legos and other construction toys are "boy toys." Similarly, a boy might smash an old radio to see what's inside and be labeled as "curious" or "a tinkerer" while at times girls are discouraged from such messy and destructive behavior.

All of those little differences in rewarded behavior can steer girls away from their curiosity in engineering, technology, and building instead of nurturing it into an eventual career path.

Worse still, women who do enter the STEM workforce are met with even more discouraging trends.

Yep, you guessed it. There's a STEM wage gap. And a sexual harassment problem.

Image from FatWallet: STEM toys for girls.

The best place to start correcting these patterns is with kids.

Specifically, with all the weirdly gender-specific toys kids are given to play with.

Marina Lee, founder and CEO of the Women in Tech Network, believes parents should encourage their kids to break through those socially constructed barriers when it comes to which toys they play with.

"Let children play with whatever toys they want to play with," Lee says. "Boys don’t just need to play with trucks and building blocks, and girls don’t just need to play with dolls. We need to look at our own unconscious bias as parents and caretakers.”

"Keep your Cabbage Patch Kids. I play with trucks." Photo by John Macdougal/AFP/Getty Images.

The AAUW also recommends several steps for encouraging young girls to explore STEM, which include providing girls with opportunities to tinker and take things apart and introducing them to STEM outside of the school setting. It's also important that boys see that girls can be competent, capable, and interested in STEM through the toys they play with at a young age. Men are often the gatekeepers to job opportunities, so making sure they don't buy into the idea that certain toys (careers) are for them and other toys (careers) are for women is crucial.

Ultimately, this is not just about improving cellphones and seat belts. It's about making the world easier for everyone to live in.

When STEM jobs (and jobs in all fields, really) are more inclusive, the world gets better. More diversity and representation means more innovation and more solutions to problems that people of all genders face.

That means better medicine, better hospitals, and better methods of communication.

When you tell a girl that she shouldn't play with Legos or that she can only play with the pink and purple Lego Friends sets, what you're really telling her is that she shouldn't satisfy her desire to build things. You're telling her that she shouldn't build, shouldn't tinker, shouldn't innovate, and that her gender actively prevents her from being good at those things.

It doesn't take an advanced STEM degree to see that's wrong.

Plus ... Legos are AMAZING.

I LOVE LEGOS. YOU LOVE LEGOS. WHO DOESN'T LOVE LEGOS?!

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

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The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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