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GoldieBlox is More Than an Engineering Toy for Girls

Andrea Newell headshotWords by Andrea Newell
Data & Technology

GoldieBlox has been praised as an innovative toy for girls that encourages their interest in engineering principles, but founder Debbie Sterling sees it as more than that. She believes that GoldieBlox is not just a toy, but the beginning of a movement to give girls new role models, a reason to become interested in STEM careers, and new challenges to keep them engaged as they grow.

I just came back from SOCAP and I heard a wonderful quote there, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ And that really struck me, because that’s what this movement is about. If we can create this female character role model, who is an engineer, we can develop this awareness around a girl that they can aspire to be. Because right now their role models are princesses or pop stars, and there’s so much room for an inspirational character that will make them want to build things, and have that be cool. It brings that idea into the mainstream and starts the conversation. And, it has. I’ve been invited to speak by the Girl Scouts, at leadership conferences and on education panels, and that broadens the conversation even more. When I talk about building a movement, it’s about creating role models.

Dodging the Legos Trap

Earlier this year Legos came under fire for offering Legos for girls, which featured skinny girls in trendy clothes and pink Lego pieces for building a beauty shop and a fashion studio. Outraged parent groups and consumers criticized Lego for perpetuating obvious stereotypes, but despite the backlash, the toy has been wildly successful, perhaps proving the need, at least, for girl-oriented problem-solving toys.

So how is GoldieBlox different? Instead of simply turning a toy pink to appeal to girls, Sterling spent the better part of a year studying girls and how they play, and incorporating that knowledge into her designs. Sterling is a Stanford-educated engineer, and as she interacted with kids, she developed a theory about how they play and a hunch about what would appeal to girls, in particular.

Reading + Building

“When I would play with girls and ask them what their favorite toy was, they would run and oftentimes come back with a book,” Sterling explained. So GoldieBlox became a  series of books with accompanying building toys starring Goldie as she enlists her friends to help her build items that employ engineering principles.

The reading component is what Sterling believes sets Goldie apart and draws girls in. The stories keep girls’ interest and gives these designs context in every day life.

Engineering is so much more than just technical know-how of how to build something. If you bring in the sense of truly understanding who we are building for and how to meet their needs - that’s an element that I think women are really good at. When we see more female engineers, I can’t help but imagine that the things we build will be so much better because we’re really considering who they’re for, not just how they work.

Building is a growth industry

The target age for initial set of books is between five and nine years. Any younger than five, Sterling explained, and kids didn’t have the motor skills to put together the projects. Older than nine, kids were moving on to other forms of entertainment than toys.

And what about those older ages? A Girl Scouts study reports that when girls are asked if they want to continue to study math in 4th grade, 91 percent say yes. By 12th grade, that number drops to 50 percent, and emerging from college, women achieve less than 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science and physics. Less than 12 percent of the engineering workforce is women. This gender disparity in her field was one of the factors that spurred Sterling to look for a way to engage girls in engineering at an early age.

Sterling’s vision certainly doesn’t stop at engaging nine-year-olds. She is cultivating a partnership with Girls Who Code and looking ahead to how to teach more sophisticated principles to challenge girls as they grow.

No girls allowed

Historically girls have faced a gender bias, whether conscious or unconscious, when pursuing STEM careers, causing them to detour into other pursuits, even though research shows that girls are just as good in mathematics as boys.

The Girl Scout Research Institute's Generation STEM study shows that:

  • 74 percent of teen girls are interested in STEM subjects and the general field of study

  • 82 percent of girls see themselves as “smart enough to have a career in STEM"

  • 57 percent of those studied concur that if they were to pursue a STEM career, they would “have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously”

Sterling believes that there are misconceptions about both engineering and the role girls can play in engineering careers.

“[While I was studying girls at play and child development], the other great thing I learned about girls was their innate desire to help people...I think once people understand what engineering is, and its capacity to help people, I think women are going to come to it in droves and really change the world.”

The business world is beginning to wonder where the girls are

Businesses, nonprofits and even government programs are beginning to take notice of the absence of girls. Girls Who Code reports:
Today, just 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women, and less than 10 percent of venture capital-backed companies have female founders. Yet females use the internet 17 percent more than their male counterparts and represent the fastest growing demographic online and on mobile, creating more than two-thirds of content on social networking sites. Technology companies with more women on their management teams have a 34 percent higher return on investment, and companies with women on technical teams increases teams' problem-solving ability and creativity. By 2018, there will be 1.4 million computer science-related job openings, yet U.S. universities are expected to produce enough computer science graduates to fill just 29 percent of these jobs.

The Girl Scouts, GE, Microsoft, Google, Lockheed Martin, state programs in Delaware, Maryland and Illinois, and even an event at the White House are all focusing on encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers.

Why do we need women in STEM careers?

What will women bring to STEM careers that a male-dominated mindset hasn’t? For one thing, a toy that inspires girls to become interested in engineering. Sterling replied, “I’m an example. I’m an engineer, and I created GoldieBlox. And because I’m a woman and because I was once a little girl, I have that perspective that male engineers simply don’t have.”

Looking ahead to the future - one populated by women who joined this movement, grew up building with GoldieBlox, graduating to Girls Who Code, and following their passion for STEM all the way to a career - what will that future look like?

“When you think about multiplying [girls’ perspective, empathy and desire to help] across all different industries and think about tackling climate change, building new devices and social networks - I’m so excited to see what happens when these GoldieBlox girls grow up and address some of the world’s biggest problems. This new perspective is only going to make things so much better and really appeal to the entire population, not just men.”

Are we leaving out the boys?

Although GoldieBlox does come in a pastel color palette, Sterling says that just as many boys play with it as girls. “I think of it as a gender-neutral toy. I have yet to test it on a boy who says he thinks it’s a girl’s toy.”

Sterling flew past her initial Kickstarter goal of $150,000 and has set a stretch goal of $400,000 by October 17. If she meets it, she will be able to offer the next two stories and tools to all of their Kickstarter investors. GoldieBlox will come out in early 2013.

Watch Sterling's story.


images: courtesy of Susan Burdick photography. All rights reserved.

Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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