Can Childhood Toys Determine Your Career Path?

Women in the Silicon Valley have developed a toy that will allegedly get girls back into the science and math professions. But will it be enough?
Publish date:
June 13, 2012
kids, science, math, math is hard, toys, weirdo dollhouse fantasies

Imitation Raybans? Really, Mom? Now I'm doomed to be a hipster.

We’ve all heard the hype: women are drastically underrepresented in the science, tech, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In my own Silicon Valley tech office, for example, the stark gender divide between the lady wishy-washy writers and the dude engineers is almost laughable.

It’s hard to ignore the gender divide in STEM professions, particularly as the tech bubble continues to inflate to an obscene degree. Male-dominated STEM professions -- like software engineers, actuaries, and financial planners -- dominate the best jobs lists, while female-dominated ones – nurses, teachers, and houseworkers – hover around the bottom. (“Blogger,” for the record, does not appear on the list anywhere.) It’s not insignificant that I’ve never heard the rallying cry for more men to join the ranks of underpaid copywriters.

As much as I’d love to join the ranks of badass women coders, my math skills extend to pretty much cooing over calculus and little else. I hate saying this, because it makes me feel a little like the Bay Area equivalent of a fifties housewife, but too many numbers turn my Liberal Arts brain into Keats-flavored mush.

Meanwhile, male-dominated start-ups continue to beget start-ups: like particularly self-centered dandelion fluffs, they’re both fertile and persistent. And as long as investors continue to throw money at the Next Facetumblgram, the lack of women in STEM professions will be of vital importance.

Many “women in tech” advocates stand behind the idea that girls are being forced out of the hard sciences at a very early age. I’m not sure that’s entirely true: studies show that the majority of math class female shyness takes place in high school, not when girls are toddlers or elementary schoolers. But there is a value, I think, to embedding an interest in how things work in the minds of young girls.

To that end, three young women in the STEM professions have developed “Roominate:” a toy meant to foster engineering and architectural interests in girls aged 4-12 while disguising the Stealth Math involved. It’s actually pretty cool: you construct a room from the ground up, and there’s real-life gadgetry involved, which was my own primary motivation for going after an Easy Bake oven as a tween.

To be honest, I’m just not quite sure of the longevity factor: once you’ve got a room, do you just sit there and stare at it? If you pretend to be Mothra on a room-destroying rampage, does the awesome circuitry board still connect? Regardless, though, the idea that a single toy can change the entire course of one’s career intrigues me.

When I was a kid, I really only remember playing in earnest with the giant dolls’ house in my parents’ basement. I’d run through elaborate fantasies with my doll family, usually soap opera-style epics that ended in one giant plastic orgy. Similarly, I remember assigning all of my stuffed animals very distinct personalities and pitting them against each other in a Survivor-esque reality show. It was all very Toy Story, if Toy Story had an unrated Director’s Cut.

Other than that and losing the occasional game of chess to my dad, most of my games involved elaborate games of pretend. My mom didn’t allow any toy guns in the house, so my tiny brother and I compensated by running around and shouting “Bang!” at each other a lot. I’d also write plays for us to perform with the neighborhood kids, usually with me as the dragon-villain and my brother as a knight in face-underwear. Often, though, I’d just wander around outside constructing elaborate fantasies starring myself as the plucky but misunderstood heroine.

I wasn't kidding.

And conveniently enough, these days I’m still a giant perv. Just one who's also an aspiring fiction-writer and who still does that whole “narrate one’s own New Yorker profile” thing. Go figure.

I also really dug Skip-its, but that’s probably neither here nor there.

Even for my friends with less generalized career aspirations, the parallels are interesting. My number-one girl, who’s currently a volunteer manager at an NGO in Cape Town, says that her favorite toys as a kid were Clue and Chinese Checkers: both strategy games that require the kind of patience and problem-solving that she needs in her job today. She also added “TREES,” which I’m choosing to interpret as her own adventurous personality and not as evidence for her future inclusion in a Peter Jackson film.

My best dude friend, who’s currently in med school, didn’t exactly spend all of his days playing Operation. But he, too, liked to play games like Clue and to force his siblings into elaborate live-action role play: things that combine his natural inquisitiveness with an empathy necessary for the medical profession.

The question, of course, is one of correlation versus causation. Did I want to dress up my panda as a princess and “rescue” her because I was already harboring baby lesbian / creative writer tendencies? If my parents had pushed me toward a tiny power tool set, would I now be a lesbian / badass truck mechanic? Can toys like the “Roominate” really encourage young girls to be more interested in STEM professions later in life?

I guess we’ll have to wait a few decades to find out. In the meantime, answer me this: is there any relation between the toys you played with as a kid and your career now? Do you wish you’d been forced to sing on a tiny karaoke machine so you could be in the next One Direction? Satisfy my curiosity, please.

Kate occasionally posts more photos of herself as a giant, pudgy hipster baby at @katchatters.