GoldieBlox: An Interview with Debbie Sterling and a GeekMom’s Take On Girls and STEM

After I interviewed the founder of GoldieBlox, events unfolded that made it seem prudent to hold off  posting until the dust had settled. I have so much to express about this topic and waiting in terms of Internet time (which has been proven to move faster) poses the danger of being behind the current events. But the topics I want to address reach beyond this current media explosion, and the decisions GoldieBlox are making exemplify my points.

I spoke with Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, right after she launched her new video, and a new product, for her line of toys meant to draw girls into engineering. Her experience both as a child herself and as a female engineer led her to research and observe what attracts girls and how she could support encouraging more girls into the engineering field.  This is how GoldieBlox was born: Take the attractive allure of a character and a storyline, and role model engineering to create a comfortable context in which girls will become interested in engineering.

For those who don’t know, GoldieBlox is a set of parts that come with a storybook. In the course of the story, kids build what the main character is building, resulting in a finished product that matches the story and has imparted an engineering concept or skill. The books also contain ideas and plans for other things you can build.

Sterling says that all of her research has resulted in this product that is resonating with her target audience by integrating experiences girls may be familiar with and that her main message through her characters is, “Take risks, don’t give up, failure is OK.”

Sterling is proud of her product and what it has done for the girls she is trying to inspire. She recalled one of her favorite stories about two daughters whose mother wrote to Sterling, saying her girls were obsessed with Goldieblox. They played with it non-stop, singing songs about engineering, and the characters in the story. That kind of enthusiasm and integration of engineering into play was exactly what Sterling was hoping for.

Her motto, “more than just a princess,” not only guides her product line, but also inspired her to launch two videos. The first, a parody of “We are the Champions” features a bunch of girls taking over the toy store aisles, apparently to demand more choice in what is offered to girls. The second, just launched, featured a wicked Rube Goldberg machine and was a parody of the Beastie Boys song “Girls.” Sterling says the intention of the video was to take a misogynistic song and reclaim it, sending a message that girls deserve more options. She says she is not trying to bash or shame princesses but that girls need more role models and experiences that are alternatives to the current marketing trend.

Since I have spoken with her, there has been a conflict with the Beastie Boys who questioned her use of their song, especially in light of the late Adam Yauch last wishes that none of his songs be used for advertisements. Goldieblox was heavily criticized for their immediate legal actions in trying to secure their right to use the song, and have now apparently backed down and changed the song to an instrumental “Princess Machine.”

photo courtesy of GoldieBlox
© GoldieBlox

I am less interested in whether or not this was a well devised marketing ploy (after all, even their name is a parody), or the fumbling of a very young and inexperienced entrepreneur. I’ll leave the writing about fair use and parody to others. It seems pretty clear that they should have done more research around their song choice and considered whether this move was worth the backlash.

I am more interested in dissecting the value of the product itself. I am a girl, I have a daughter. We are a family who is heavily invested in education and the advancement of STEAM concepts and skills for children (I like STEAM over STEM- the integration of art is essential, in my opinion.) We are exactly her target audience. Unfortunately, we are also less than enthusiastic.

I was upfront with Sterling that my daughter found the toy kind of boring and not very open-ended. This could be because it did not connect with my daughter (it happens), or it could be that my daughter has access to a lot of building materials already. Sterling acknowledged that they were working on this by increasing the number of building suggestions in the book that accompanies the toy, and that they have launched a new part of their website dedicated to Goldieblox fan inventions. It is her hope this will help extend the play and increase the opportunities for inventing beyond the storylines in the books.

Here’s the thing: I think Goldieblox is coming from a genuine place, wanting to help close the gender gap in the STEM fields and provide more options in the toy spectrum. I think they are excellent at marketing. I also think they are a young company and a bit confused about their participation in the “girls need to be this now” trend which is, in my opinion, just as bad as the market telling girls they must be princesses swathed in purple and pink. Is this a different option when the colors are still pastels (primarily purple), the characters are attractive, and the storyline includes a princess pageant?

Sterling told me they chose that storyline for their second product because most girls would have experience with a talent show, but that is not what they called it. They called it a “princess pageant” and clearly two of the female characters want the title. The message feels a little like, “We know you like princesses so we are going to cater to that but it’s not good enough. You have to be more.” They are certainly not the only ones. The desire to inspire and empower girls is growing, as is the opportunity to convince parents of the need. That is the real issue.

I was not particularly into dolls and dressing up when I was young, but my daughter is. Raised after two brothers in a very gender neutral household, my daughter chose pink and purple and sparkle as soon as she could say the words. While it’s true that she often has a sword tucked into her fairy wings, the fact is she is everything this movement says is wrong. I think we have to be very careful about vilifying that which our girls value. Not every girl needs or wants to be “more than just a princess, ” that a princess is more than we are giving them credit for.

In our house a princess is kind and just, knows her international relations, speaks many languages, or has many skills in order to assist in running a kingdom. Princesses are like figures in mythology; for little girls they represent all of the qualities of being human that they are trying on as they figure out who they are. All princesses are unique, just like all girls are.

Sterling disagreed with me on my concern about the message that girls have to be good at everything. She says that her characters are not geniuses nor perfect, but in fact messy, quirky, and willing to make mistakes. While I have not seen much evidence of that yet, I am more concerned with the battle cry at the expense of everything else, particularly the attraction to fancy and the exploration of what beauty means to each individual girl. Those things are always used as an excuse as to why girls don’t ‘x,y, or z.’ That simply isn’t the case. It is by being supported in our interests, whatever they may be, that allows us to be open to new possibilities.

Finally, I questioned Sterling about focusing on girls. She insists that it is necessary in order to close the STEM gender gap. Even so, many boys like the product as well. She feels it is generally gender neutral and that her products will become more so with the introduction of a boy character next year. I know she has done a lot of research about what engages girls, and if this product gets even one girl interested in engineering, then bravo!

I would suggest however, that catering to girls like this is not the only way to achieve a more balanced range of options. Despite the current trend in the Maker/STEM movement, to promise a development of passion with purchase, I think many girls and their families are getting tired of all the marketing targeted at them, telling them who they should be, particularly in relationship to their gender. It is just as effective to buy your girl a bunch of building materials and invest your time introducing them to engineering skills and concepts. You want to make an engineer out of your daughter? Build with her. Make and hack things instead of buying them. Take her to appropriate community events and introduce her to female mentors who serve as role models.

It is not the lack of options or opportunities right now that is keeping girls from seeking STEM careers, it is what happens when they get there. The reality is that many fields of science and medical graduate students are more than half women, but eventually the women leave. Not because they played with Barbie or princesses two decades ago, but because they opted to have a family and found the workplace culture and long mandatory work hours to be completely incompatible. As a former scientist I know said to me, “Even if we raise a generation of girls to want to be engineers, will we give them maternity leave in twenty years?”

Look, I think the product itself is slickly designed and fun for many girls, and I encourage you to take a look if you think it might interest your daughter. For me, though, it introduced an intense scrutiny of what we are buying. Those girls in the video didn’t set up that “princess machine,” it was a piece of excellent marketing designed by adults to sell a product. Even if it was meant to empower and inspire, (and perhaps for many it did) it is still a message that is telling my daughter through words and images what she should be, what she should like (or not).

So until we get to a place where we can honestly and earnestly support boys and girls in their own visions, I am going to continue to question any attempt to change the world through a product. It is relationships and experiences that create new generations of innovators, not products, and if we want those innovators (boys and girls) to be engaged and satisfied in STEM careers then we need to focus on the real issues of culture and policy to see that change.

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