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How ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys’ are causing big problems in the tech industry.

The market for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is one of the fastest growing in the United States.

If you’re still wondering why, just look around: Millions of people are carrying small computers in their pockets. We can play the most advanced video games in the world on a device thinner than a pencil. Our watches can track and send our heartbeats to loved ones on the other side of the planet, and every 20-something with a plaid shirt secretly dreams of inventing the next Facebook.

Talking is texting, dating is Tinder-ing, and ordering hangover takeout is an experience joyously free of human contact. Not to mention all the progress and innovations in health and medicine that keep many of us alive longer and longer every day.

But there’s a problem in the world of STEM that needs to be fixed.

Despite the fact that women make up more than half of the professional and technical work force in the United States, women are massively underrepresented in STEM careers and have been for decades.

Margaret Hamilton, a software engineer who helped get Apollo XI to the moon. Photo by NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011, women held less than 25% of STEM jobs. Overall, that’s an increase since the 1970s, but in computer occupations, women’s representation has actually declined since the 1990s.

So why — specifically — is this a problem?

Well, if underrepresentation of an entire gender in America’s fastest growing job market doesn’t do it for you, consider this: Lack of diversity and representation isn’t just bad for progress, it’s bad for business.

Especially in STEM industries which are based on innovative ideas and creative thinking — not having women in the room when designing something meant to be used by people across the gender spectrum is entirely unproductive. When all-male teams create products, they often miss potential solutions because they experience the world differently than women do. When women join those teams, products that had been designed by-men-for-men are adapted and become more useful to the entire population.

All images and data from FatWallet: STEM toys for girls.

It turns out, women get turned away from STEM careers pretty early in life.

Society starts to impose gender roles on kids much earlier than you might think.

“By age 3, children can start articulating gender and racial stereotypes,” says Catherine Hill, a researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). They are learning by what they see, and they are forming stereotypes from the world around them — from parents, teachers, daycare staff.”

Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

That means that while girls are encouraged to play with Barbies, they are sometimes being told that Legos and other construction toys are “boy toys.” Similarly, a boy might smash an old radio to see what’s inside and be labeled as “curious” or “a tinkerer” while at times girls are discouraged from such messy and destructive behavior.

All of those little differences in rewarded behavior can steer girls away from their curiosity in engineering, technology, and building instead of nurturing it into an eventual career path.

Worse still, women who do enter the STEM workforce are met with even more discouraging trends.

Yep, you guessed it. There’s a STEM wage gap. And a sexual harassment problem.

Image from FatWallet: STEM toys for girls.

The best place to start correcting these patterns is with kids.

Specifically, with all the weirdly gender-specific toys kids are given to play with.

Marina Lee, founder and CEO of the Women in Tech Network, believes parents should encourage their kids to break through those socially constructed barriers when it comes to which toys they play with.

“Let children play with whatever toys they want to play with,” Lee says. “Boys don’t just need to play with trucks and building blocks, and girls don’t just need to play with dolls. We need to look at our own unconscious bias as parents and caretakers.”

“Keep your Cabbage Patch Kids. I play with trucks.” Photo by John Macdougal/AFP/Getty Images.

The AAUW also recommends several steps for encouraging young girls to explore STEM, which include providing girls with opportunities to tinker and take things apart and introducing them to STEM outside of the school setting. It’s also important that boys see that girls can be competent, capable, and interested in STEM through the toys they play with at a young age. Men are often the gatekeepers to job opportunities, so making sure they don’t buy into the idea that certain toys (careers) are for them and other toys (careers) are for women is crucial.

Ultimately, this is not just about improving cellphones and seat belts. It’s about making the world easier for everyone to live in.

When STEM jobs (and jobs in all fields, really) are more inclusive, the world gets better. More diversity and representation means more innovation and more solutions to problems that people of all genders face.

That means better medicine, better hospitals, and better methods of communication.

When you tell a girl that she shouldn’t play with Legos or that she can only play with the pink and purple Lego Friends sets, what you’re really telling her is that she shouldn’t satisfy her desire to build things. You’re telling her that she shouldn’t build, shouldn’t tinker, shouldn’t innovate, and that her gender actively prevents her from being good at those things.

It doesn’t take an advanced STEM degree to see that’s wrong.

Plus … Legos are AMAZING.

I LOVE LEGOS. YOU LOVE LEGOS. WHO DOESN’T LOVE LEGOS?!

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