Why don’t girls ask for Lego?

Posted on 27 April 2018

Just 17% of undergraduates beginning a Cambridge maths degree last year were female. Why? Lack of aspiration? Lack of ability? Nature or nurture? As the Head of a Girls’ Prep school, I’m interested in ensuring that with only 21% of the STEM workforce being female, we catch girls young and keep them keen on STEM subjects.

Physiological differences in male and female brains at birth are small, but differences are quickly accentuated as children’s brains develop rapidly through their early experiences.  A quick internet search of ‘girls toys’ bring to the top of the page a pink unicorn, Barbie’s magical dreamboat, a picnic basket, a wash day set and a rainbow mermaid! There is little scope here to advance spatial development, though plenty to progress imaginative play and nurturing skills.  Whilst these toys are enjoyable in themselves (for boys as well as girls), if they form the main diet for little girls’ play, their ability to think logically and reason spatially will not be developed.

So why don’t our girls ask for Lego for their birthday? Why do they choose a princess outfit rather than a mechanic? Christia Spears Brown, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, ascertains that gender preferences for toys show up only after children learn about their gender. Babies show no preference. Gender becomes more important to children from the age of three, which is when marketing centred around an item being a girls’ or a boys’ toy becomes significant. Children also take cues from each other. According to Brown, if you take a truck and show a girl a group of other girls playing with the truck, that girl will be more likely to play with it and see it as a girls’ toy.

Accepting that most girls will be given and enjoy dolls, what options are there? In 2017 Barbie Career Dolls were launched with a palaeontologist, pilot, game developer, scientist and astronaut part of the line-up. The construction worker, with her bricks provided to make a house or tree house is commendable, but quite why she must wear very tight jeans with her pink hard hat remains a question! That being said, there are now more options for parents wishing to provide strong role models for their daughters.

So how can primary schools encourage girls to enjoy and achieve success in maths, science, IT and engineering? Providing collaborative activities where girls can bounce ideas off each other helps them persist with difficult questions. An investigative approach to science with plentiful opportunities for completing practical tasks and chances to plan and carry out their own project keeps girls engaged. Seeing other girls relishing STEM reinforces the belief that girls can find STEM subjects fulfilling and enjoyable. And making sure that there are plenty of construction and logic toys, both large and small, for girls to access within the classroom, without having to compete with the boys, is a must.

During May we will be holding a STEM Festival at St Albans High School Prep, planned to excite and delight our students in all things STEM.

With drone workshops, a planetarium, robotics, lego town planning, big construction of famous landmarks, investigative maths, junk modelling and a forensic investigation, we aim to provide exciting opportunities to enthuse all the girls about STEM, encouraging the girls to think creatively and stretch the boundaries of their knowledge.

A STEM Careers Fair for our oldest girls will encourage them to turn their minds more seriously to possibilities for the future, harnessing their enthusiasm to think big and aim high.

I truly hope that by offering this range of thought-provoking, imaginative and fun activities, more young girls will be inspired to step into STEM.

Judy Rowe, Head of St Albans High School Prep

For more information on the STEM Fest programme, please click here.

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