Sydney designer asks, does STEM have a princess problem?

Are ‘princess’ characters limiting girls engagement with STEM?

In 2019, I’ve seen a slew of new initiatives, increased awareness, millions in financial investment, and more ‘women in STEM’ profiles than I can count.

They are all working to make change in an industry where only 16% of Australia’s STEM skilled workforce is female.

But despite major advances, the number of girls participating in STEM education has remained unchanged or declined over the last 30 years.

Last month, Freakonomics released an episode that discussed the influence the Disney princess culture has on shaping young girls stereotyped behaviour. In the episode Actor and activist Geena Davis spoke about the connection between ‘princessism’ and what she calls the “biggest problem in the world”: gender inequality.

For an industry grappling with gender inequality, I think it’s time we in STEM also discuss the problem with Princesses.

Let’s start at the beginning

Gender differences regarding an interest in STEM subjects, as well as positive feelings towards science, begin in the early primary years– at an age where we’re first figuring out who we are, where we fit in, and what we can bring to the world. It also happens to be an age when many young girls are in love with Princess-like characters.

By this age, children’s academic interests are already taking form. Recent studies have shown that children’s ideas about gender and brilliance begin as early as age 6, when girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their own genders are “really, really, smart”. In follow up studies, these girls were less likely to choose to play with toys that were for ‘really, really, smart’ children.

“Girls in particular who were really into princess culture at age four tended to be more gender-stereotyped the next year”, Sarah Coye, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University explains on Freakonomics.

“What we find is that girls who are highly gender-stereotyped tend to limit themselves in a number of key ways. So they don’t think that they can do well in math or science. They’re less likely to want to go on to college when they get older. So it’s really about limiting yourself and what you could become.”

These stereotyped beliefs are often measured during the ‘draw-a-scientist’ task, where over two-thirds of children aged 9 to 11 draw a man. According to a recent review, this pattern has not significantly decreased across time despite the some progress in women being seen to work in STEM. Interestingly, these beliefs prevail even though girls receive higher average grades compared with boys, as reported in a meta-analysis which examined the grades of 1.6 million students. Critically, when girls are reminded of the stereotype ‘maths=boys’, their performance on followup maths tests decrease.

Pink toys are for girls. Educational toys are for boys

In her research, Coye reports that of the girls surveyed, 61% played with Disney Princess toys at least once a week, compared to 4% of boys. This is hardly surprising. For young kids who like princesses, they have plenty of opportunities to explore princess costumes, games, books, figurines, projections, plushies, and the list goes on. These toys and products are speaking to them, calling out to them-unlike ‘STEM’ toys, which are 3 times more likely to be targeted at boys than girls.

This targeted messaging matters. It results in STEM toys being purchased for girls less frequently than they are for boys. Consequently, toys that are fun, but also contain an educational value, are more likely to be bestowed upon boys, seeding interest in STEM and later in life, through occupational choices. When children are only playing with one ‘kind’ of toy they’re likely to be missing out on a whole host of skills.

Anne Forbes, an academic from Macquarie University whose research focuses on STEM education, explains that Toy type influences play type: “If girls are mainly given dolls, cooking utensils and toy animals while boys are given toy carpentry tools, cars and robots then play will be along typical gender stereotypical lines.”

This play divide can mean that “there are greater science-related ‘training opportunities’ for boys in the early years,” according to Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston Brain Centre. It’s clear that in order for girls to have these same ‘training opportunities’, to develop a strong science identity, and recognise themselves as capable science learners, they also need to have access to toys and stories that present females as ‘science people’, in a way that’s normal, and attractive.

The power of the playroom

If we want more girls in leadership positions, engaging in STEM, and contributing to the future of innovation — we need to address the playroom. Toys and stories offer a wonderful opportunity to expand these identities, yet in the majority of cases, princesses (many of which are white and western) are narrowing identities — and then, ultimately, choices.

This is especially important at an age when children are constantly seeking clues, and taking cues as to what their gender identities mean, and where they belong in the world.

So how can we enter the world of magical kingdoms, fantasy and unicorns, and expand them to introduce STEM concepts and problem solving in a way that’s attractive, welcoming and engaging? If we can crack that, then we may have finally created a blend that’s the best of both worlds. Because I still do really like unicorns and characters and games that symbolise friendship, and I don’t believe anyone should have to give this up to become a scientist

This piece was written by Annabel Blake. She is a researcher and strategist. Together with Deborah Ho, a designer, they founded Little Literature Co – creators of Talu Tales, available online or in your local independent bookstore.



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