Is Real Science for Men?

by Quinn O'Neill

Sc3Science kits made by the Australian company WILD! Science have been causing a bit of a stir in the blogosphere lately. The kits, marketed for boys or for girls, come in blue or pink packaging and differ in their content. The boys’ kits include names like “Hyperlauncher”, “Joke Soap”, “Weird Slime Lab”, and “Physics and Chemistry”. The girls’ kits focus on beauty, perfume, and magic with names like “Beautiful Blob Slime”, “Beauty Salon”, “Beauty Spa Lab”, “Perfect Perfume Lab”, “Luxury Soap Lab”, “Lip Balm Lab”, “Mystic (Krazy) Crystals”, and “Magical Crystal Oasis”.

Bloggers Phil Plait, Evelyn Mervine, and Janet Stemwedel offered some excellent commentary. The marketing of the girls’ kits, in particular, drew serious criticism. Perhaps we shouldn’t be promoting the idea that little girls ought to be pretty and so concerned with their appearance. And why is “Physics and Chemistry” only for boys? The Mystic and Magical Crystals Kits raise other questions. Is mysticism a girl thing? And if so, are girls naturally inclined to mysticism or is this the effect of socialization? These may be especially important questions to think about during the Christmas season, a season of gift giving that’s steeped in tradition, myth, and magic.

The idea that myths and fantasy are an important part of both childhood and Christmas is nothing new. In 1897, little Virginia O’Hanlon famously made a plea for the truth in her letter to the editor of The Sun: “Please tell me the truth,” she asked. “Is there a Santa Claus?” There seems to be a general perception even today that it would be cruel to shatter such a time-honoured Christmas myth for a child. As one might expect, the editor lied and went so far in his response to exclaim “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!” I wonder if the editor would have felt so inclined to also propagate the myth of fairies had the question come from a little boy. Regardless, Virginia wanted for the truth; it was adults who felt she shouldn’t have it. Why? Do adults lie and perpetuate such myths for children's sake or for their own?

Truth isn’t the only thing that the Virginias of the western world won’t be getting for the holidays, not if their parents shop online at the Discovery Kids website. After the WILD! Science kits tweaked my interest, I took a stroll around the net looking at the sorts of science toys on the go and how they’re marketed.

The Discovery Kids site made my investigation easy by providing an option to search by age and gender. Looking at the pages for boys and girls in the 8-12 year old range, the first difference of note is the number of items – 54 for boys, 26 for girls (as of last night; the numbers have changed slightly since I first looked at the site). So what’s different on the pages? First of all, the girls’ page has 7 items that aren’t on the boys’ page, all related to crafts and jewelry with the exception of one gizmo that simulates shooting stars on your walls and ceiling. The boys' page also has 9 toy vehicles that aren’t on the girls’ page.

I won’t complain about the toy vehicles. Some studies have found that boys and girls show differences in preferences for toy vehicles and dolls even before 8 months of age, and this difference has also been reported in nonhuman primates. I’m certainly not about to argue that we should force kids to play with toys for which they have little natural inclination, but I think we should be careful that we don’t cultivate differences in ability where there are no differences in aptitude.

There are a lot of items that are exclusive to the boys’ page that I will complain about. They include:

  • 5 MythBusters kits
  • 5 toys related to paleontology/geology, including dinosaur replicas, an excavation kit, and a set of dinosaur teeth and claws
  • 4 chemistry sets
  • 12 items related to physics and biology, including a Genetics and DNA set and a spiffy microscope that comes with prepared slides (there is one micro/macroscope that appears on both pages, but this one is exclusive to the boys’ page).

All of these great science toys – chemistry, physics, biology, and paleontology toys – apparently, are just for boys. While the site doesn’t force visitors to view the toys sorted by gender, the photos of many of the products exclusive to the boys’ page make it clear which gender the toy is intended for. The Discovery Channel Polymer Chemistry Set and the Chem C500 Chemistry Experiment Set, for example, show boys playing with the sets while adult men supervise in the background. Photos of the excavation kit and a model T-Rex also show boys playing with the products (in the case of the excavation kit, only the child's hands and shirt are shown, but it appears to me to be a boy).

Who decided that all the good science toys are for boys? A lot of people, it would seem. Not just the person who sorted Discovery Kids’ toys into boys’ and girls’ categories, the people who set up the photos for each product, the ones who decided on the color schemes for the packages, and the masterminds behind WILD! Science’s kits and similar products, but a lot of consumers as well. These products are undoubtedly marketed like this because it works. Many shoppers still hold fusty notions of gender roles that they learned decades ago, and we cling to tradition. But we should remember that not everyone fits neatly and happily into traditional roles and stereotypes.

When I was a little girl, I would have loved to gotten my ringed and braceleted hands on a lot of these great science toys, but if my parents had visited Discovery Kids’ site and looked in the girls’ section they wouldn’t have found them. And they probably would have looked (if the internet had existed then), because their little girl was mixing together potentially dangerous household chemicals and burning little black holes in their wooden deck with a magnifying glass.

As luck would have it, I did find a microscope under the Christmas tree one year. I wasn’t long taking it out of the box and it was a favorite play item for quite some time. It wasn’t pink and it wasn’t Barbie themed and I liked it just fine that way. In fact, for me, the appeal was in pretending that I was a real scientist who might actually make an important discovery. The more real the microscope looked the happier I’d have been; pink glitter would have been a turn off.

I don’t recall if I believed in Santa Claus at the time, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The microscopic world that opened up was far more magical than the idea of Santa. Myths and mysticism leave open the possibility that there exist things that we can’t see – captivating creatures that belong to unfamiliar dimensions – but a good microscope will let you see such things and peer into a mysterious world that’s normally shrouded by its inaccessible scale. And it’s not just spellbinding, it’s real.

With the good science toys and the MythBusters Kits only on the boys' page, the message is pretty clear: real science is for boys; mysticism and myths are for girls. It might seem heartless to tell a child that there’s no Santa Claus, but it’s far worse to tell a curious little girl that she can’t have a chemistry set or to confine her indefinitely to a world of blurred reality. The effects may be long reaching. How will she react when she starts learning science in school and some of the boys already seem to have an edge? Will it occur to her that some of them had a headstart or will she conclude that science must be a boy thing? Sometimes it’s crueler to perpetuate myths than to destroy them, like the myth that real science is just for boys. The Virginias of the world deserve the truth and it’s time the world stopped lying to them. Science and reality are for everyone.