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Toymakers, Advertisers Encouraging Young Girls to Redefine Gender Roles

Image Credit: Bricks & Bloks

The gender divide starts young in our society, with boys and girls generally encouraged to adopt a standard set of acceptable behaviors and preferences from an early age. But a number of companies have recently begun to encourage young girls and women to forgo limiting gender roles and fulfill their true potential by embracing their strengths and smarts.

Part of Mattel’s “I Can Be” line of dolls, the 2014 career for Barbie is Entrepreneur. The doll comes in four ethnicities, holds a briefcase, a smartphone and a tablet, and is backed by a team of Chief Inspirational Officers comprised of real-life entrepreneurs who collaborated with Mattel on the project - including Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, Rent the Runway founders Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, Deborah Jackson of Plum Alley and others.

"Having positive role models for dolls that are inspiring young girls to be entrepreneurs is exactly what we need to inspire a generation of young women to start running businesses," Saujani said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“To have a female businesswoman Barbie out there, front and center — reminding women that you can do this, you can have everything, you can be an entrepreneur — is such a statement,” Fleiss also told TechCrunch.

Entrepreneur Barbie does not specify details of her business but instead declares on her LinkedIn page (yes, she's a true professional) that after 150+ careers, her true calling remains to “encourage generations of girls to place no limitations on their ambitions.” Her latest gig is that of a Dream Incubator — i.e. to “act as a consultant, helping girls around the world play out their imagination, try on different careers, and explore the world around them.”

The promotion extends online to Twitter where Barbie has hosted a Pink Power Lunch and honored special, women entrepreneurs. To help parents spark and explain the entrepreneurial spirit to children, Barbie provides them an all pink, printable aide, which to a large degree retains the stereotype that it proposes to fight. It asks girls “Do you love cooking?” “Do you love crafts?” or “Do you love animals?” and also offers instructions to make a bracelet to help girls start a jewelry business.

For many, Barbie still symbolizes all that is wrong with the gender stereotypes that exist. The Entrepreneur Barbie continues to have the same, unrealistic body proportions, the high heels and style of her predecessors — only her gadgets are different and meant to indicate her profession.

“It’s what women in leadership roles are wearing today, versus the power suit,” Mattel spokesperson Michelle Chidoni told Forbes, adding that Barbie’s C-suite look was designed by a team comprised of graduates from top fashion schools such as FIDIM and FIT.

“My daughter looked at this doll and said, ‘No entrepreneur would dress like that. They have to wear real clothes,’” Patrali Chatterjee, Associate Professor of Marketing at Montclair State University’s School of Business told The Business Journals.

Another brand that has faced a lot of flak on its representation of female characters (or lack thereof) is Lego. The company has faced pressure from campaigners to address its skewed male/female character ratio (only 16 percent of the minifigures are female) and also widen its representation of women. In 2012, it released its 'Friends' series, which was marketed to girls and was strongly criticized for its stereotypical representation that featured plenty of pink and a focus on appearance and beauty.

Later that year, Dr. Ellen Kooijman, a geochemist, suggested a set of female minifigures representing a chemist, an astronomer and a paleontologist on Lego Ideas, a platform where people can suggest ideas for Lego sets.

“As a female scientist I had noticed two things about the available LEGO sets: a skewed male/female minifigure ratio and a rather stereotypical representation of the available female figures. It seemed logical that I would suggest a small set of female minifigures in interesting professions to make our LEGO city communities more diverse,” she writes on her blog.

If an idea generates enough support, Lego reviews it and approved projects go into manufacturing. Kooijman's idea was overwhelmingly backed by supporters and actively promoted by campaigners including a petition on Lego approved the project and a new set called the “Research Institute” featuring 3 scientists is now available. “This awesome model is an inspiring set that offers a lot for kids as well as adults,” says the company.

When Goldie Blox, manufacturer of “Engineering Toys for Girls,” raised nearly twice its startup capital goal on Kickstarter in 2012, it shined another light on the dire need for such offerings in Toyland. Started by Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling, the company aims to get girls building.

“When I was a little girl, I thought the word "engineering" was nerdy and intimidating and just for boys. I've since learned I was so wrong... The scary truth is that only 11 percent of engineers are women and girls start losing interest in science as young as age 8! I'm creating GoldieBlox to inspire girls the way Legos and Erector sets have inspired boys, for over 100 years, to develop an early interest and skill set in engineering,” says Sterling in her Kickstarter pitch.

Made for girls between 5-9 years, the toys fuse storytelling with building, making it appealing to girls who tend to possess strong verbal skills.

“They aren't as interested in building for the sake of building; they want to know why. GoldieBlox stories replace the 1-2-3 instruction manual and provide narrative-based building, centered around a role model character who solves problems by building machines. Goldie's stories relate to girls' lives, have a sense of humor and make engineering fun,” says the company.

GoldieBlox hopes to disrupt the status quo and inspire a future generation of female engineers. But the company insists the toys are not aimed at just girls - boys are encouraged to play with GoldieBlox and plans are on to introduce male characters.

Pro-girl messaging is also gaining popularity in the media. Recently, Procter & Gamble’s feminine hygiene brand Always released its wildly popular #LikeaGirl video, which questions the term's common use as an insult or to belittle. The video juxtaposes answers given by adults and young girls to the same question: What it means to do something “like a girl.” The difference hits hard and the video spread wide across social media.

“We’re kicking off an epic battle to make sure that girls everywhere keep their confidence throughout puberty and beyond, and making a start by showing them that doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing,” says the company.

Verizon's #InspireHerMind series follows along similar lines, questioning stereotypes that discourage girls from pursuing science and technology.

“Not enough girls are encouraged to pursue their love of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But there are actions we can take to reverse the trend,” reads the Verizon site, which also urges people to empower girls by inspiring more of them to get involved with STEM.

While most of these examples do a great job in addressing the lacuna that prevailed in toys for girls or gender discrimination that discouraged girls, little is being done to expose and encourage boys to try their hand at expanding their gender notions to include traditionally female roles such as cooking, sewing, etc. True gender neutrality can only be achieved when the labels are removed and children are ... just children.

Aarthi is an Editorial Assistant at Sustainable Brands. She has nearly a decade of experience in creating and managing content across diverse media (web, video and print) for nonprofits and media houses in the US and India. Aarthi holds a… [Read more about Aarthi Rayapura]

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