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?!

True

Anne Hebert, a marketing writer living in Austin, TX, jokes that her closest friends think that her hobby is "low-key harassment for social good". She authors a website devoted entirely to People Doing Good Things. She's hosted a yearly canned food drive with up to 150 people stopping by to donate, resulting in hundreds of pounds of donations to take to the food bank for the past decade.

"I try to share info in a positive way that gives people hope and makes them aware of solutions or things they can do to try to make the world a little better," she said.

For now, she's encouraging people through a barrage of persistent, informative, and entertaining emails with one goal in mind: getting people to VOTE. The thing about emailing people and talking about politics, according to Hebert, is to catch their attention—which is how lice got involved.

"When my kids were in elementary school, I was class parent for a year, which meant I had to send the emails to the other parents. As I've learned over the years, a good intro will trick your audience into reading the rest of the email. In fact, another parent told me that my emails always stood out, especially the one that started: 'We need volunteers for the Valentine's Party...oh, and LICE.'"

Hebert isn't working with a specific organization. She is simply trying to motivate others to find ways to plug in to help get out the vote.

Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

Keep Reading Show less
via Amelia J / Twitter

Election Day is a special occasion where Americans of all walks of life come together to collectively make important decisions about the country's future. Although we do it together as a community, it's usually a pretty formal affair.

People tend to stand quietly in line, clutching their voter guides. Politics can be a touchy subject, so most usually stand in line like they're waiting to have their number called at the DMV.

However, a group of voters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania received a lot of love on social media on Sunday for bringing a newfound sense of joy to the voting process.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
True

Glenda moved to Houston from Ohio just before the pandemic hit. She didn't know that COVID-19-related delays would make it difficult to get her Texas driver's license and apply for unemployment benefits. She quickly found herself in an impossible situation — stranded in a strange place without money for food, gas, or a job to provide what she needed.

Alone, hungry, and scared, Glenda dialed 2-1-1 for help. The person on the other end of the line directed her to the Houston-based nonprofit Bread of Life, founded by St. John's United Methodist pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus.

For nearly 30 years, Bread of Life has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention, eliminating food insecurity, providing permanent housing to formerly homeless individuals and disaster relief.

Glenda sat in her car for 20 minutes outside of the building, trying to muster up the courage to get out and ask for help. She'd never been in this situation before, and she was terrified.

When she finally got out, she encountered Eva Thibaudeau, who happened to be walking down the street at the exact same time. Thibaudeau is the CEO of Temenos CDC, a nonprofit multi-unit housing development also founded by the Rasmuses, with a mission to serve Midtown Houston's homeless population.

Keep Reading Show less
via Jody Danielle Fisher / Facebook

Breast milk is an incredibly magical food. The wonderful thing is that it's produced by a collaboration between mother and baby.

British mother Jody Danielle Fisher shared the miracle of this collaboration on Facebook recently after having her 13-month-old child vaccinated.

In the post, she compared the color of her breast milk before and after the vaccination, to show how a baby's reaction to the vaccine has a direct effect on her mother's milk production.

Keep Reading Show less

Ah, the awkward joy of school picture day. Most of us had to endure the unnatural positioning, the bright light shining in our face, and the oddly ethereal backgrounds that mark the annual ritual. Some of us even have painfully humorous memories to go along with our photos.

While entertaining school picture day stories are common, one mom's tale of her daughter's not-picture-perfect school photo is winning people's hearts for a funny—but also inspiring—reason.

Jenny Albers of A Beautifully Burdened Life shared a photo of her daughter on her Facebook page, which shows her looking just off camera with a very serious look on her face. No smile. Not even a twinkle in her eye. Her teacher was apologetic and reassured Albers that she could retake the photo, but Albers took one look and said no way.

Keep Reading Show less