When Debbie Sterling launched a Kickstarter campaign for her line of engineering-inspired toys for girls in 2012, the issue of gendered toys and the so-called toy store “pink aisle” exploded into a national conversation. Two years later, GoldieBlox’s product line occupies a coveted spot in Toys “R” Us stores, boasts tens of thousands of customers and is the first small business to have a commercial air during the Super Bowl. The company is part of a larger trend of breaking down gender barriers when it comes to products aimed at children, and demonstrates an opportunity for female-led businesses to capitalize on the demand.
For example, Roominate. Roominate products are mini-architectural exercises; instead of playing house, girls design the structures using circuits, motors and connectors. Engineers Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen developed Roominate products with the express purpose of exposing young girls to the STEM fields through toys.
Not all companies that aim to subvert the gender norm are interested in explicitly marketing their toys to girls — some opt for a gender-neutral approach. One such company is littleBits, which sells DIY electronics kits for children. According to founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir, “it’s reaffirming the stereotype to say, ‘We’re going to make this product exciting for girls to get them interested in science.’ That just makes things worse.” Forgoing gendered marketing doesn’t seem to be hindering littleBits’ ability to reach young girls. Bdeir estimates that some 50-60 percent of littleBits’ young users are female.
The success of these female-helmed companies could indicate a new niche market for female entrepreneurs who recognize that gendering toys only limits what could be a much larger consumer base. In fact, the toy industry itself has fostered some notable successes for female entrepreneurship: Lane Nemeth founded Discovery Toys in 1978, and Maxine Clark founded Build-A-Bear Workshop in 1997. It’s a natural fit for trailblazing female entrepreneurs to market toys specifically for young girls, providing them with the options that the previous generation lacked.
There are make-your-own-perfume chemistry sets, a doll who must make a robot for a Science Fair and the entire Doc McStuffins franchise, just to name a few. Moreover, providing for girls that buck tradition is certainly not limited to the toy industry alone. Take, for example, Girls Will Be, a clothing company founded in 2013 by Sharon Choksi with the goal of creating clothes that provide alternatives to the typical pink, sparkly and frequently sexualized mall finds. Girls Will Be clothes are designed to fit comfortably and have messages like “Be Awesome” emblazoned across the chest as opposed to “Princess.”
While GoldieBlox ignited a conversation that gave increased attention toward these products, it’s worth noting that a quick perusal of toy giants like Toys ‘R Us or Target’s websites still yields an almost entirely pink, doll-saturated array once you select the “girl” option. But the creation and successes of companies like GoldieBlox and their ability to reach young girls with new options shows that the market not only exists — but is quite robust.