Chemistry kits ‘for boys’

// 29 January 2009

Frequent F-Word commenter Sabre guest posts about chemistry kits ‘for boys’

Reported in the Telegraph yesterday was the unveiling of a range of chemistry sets for kids. “Great!” I thought eagerly, “I wish I’d had toys like this when I was a kid!” I studied chemistry at university and I loved it. I now work in policy, where one of my main interests is promoting diversity in science and engineering.

So imagine my dismay when I realised these chemistry kits were in fact, for boys. The toy company Interplay has teamed up with the authors of the Dangerous Book for Boys to produce the kits, packaged to look like the books. Jess has blogged about this book here and here.

I’ve never been a particular fan of having separate books and toys for girls and boys, based on my own experiences being a girl who was denied a train set because it was ‘for boys’. However, I don’t have children and I know that even in the most progressive environment, girls and boys do tend to prefer different types of toys and behave according to stereotype.

Yet it’s impossible to deny that many girls are interested in science (and engineering, maths and computers). There are many complex social, economic and cultural barriers that eventually turn many of them away from science. For girls, the problem often boils down to the simple yet pervasive idea that science and engineering are ‘for boys’. This idea is constantly reinforced by society; their peers, teachers and family members as well as a lack of role models at home and in the media.

The article implies a trend towards a ‘back to basics’ approach to toys. Does that mean we’ll get girls back to playing in toy kitchens while the boys go off tinkering in sheds with their dads? Rose-tinted nostalgia for the good old days is demonstrated clearly in the quote from Bob Paton, the product manager:

Bob Paton, the product manager of Interplay, the Buckinghamshire-based company, which has signed the license deal with the Iggulden brothers, said: “These science kits will be wonderful for boys to bond with their fathers.

“There is a real feel-good factor about them and a world away from video games. It is our job to distract children away from video games into real toys.”

Hold on. So the kits are for boys to bond with their fathers. What are the girls doing? I didn’t realise a male appendage was required to use chemistry kits – these days they usually come with solution stirrers. I’m all for father-son bonding, but where are the chemistry kits for girls? Well, looking at Interplay’s website, girls can play with chemistry; they can make perfumes, incense and bath bombs! Hurrah. And it’s easy to tell which of their toys are for girls, just look out for the pink packaging.

I agree that it’s great to get more kids into science. But we badly need to get girls interested too; in fact I would argue that it’s more important to engage girls. There are plenty of science, engineering and IT organisations working hard to improve the image of their profession and increase diversity, particularly through activities reaching out to schoolgirls. Yet despite all their hard work, I have a nasty feeling this toy (and others like it) are undoing that work too easily and setting us back towards giving children those tired gendered messages about what they can and should be when they grow up.

Comments From You

Kez // Posted 29 January 2009 at 12:02 pm

I always wanted a chemistry set as a kid… oh well, guess it’s too late now. Especially as these ones are FOR BOYS.

I actually think toys (and the marketing thereof) are one of the most blatantly gender-stereotyped things around. You only had to walk into Woolies (in the days when it still existed…) to immediately identify the aisles of toys which were aimed at boys (dull colours, khaki etc) and those which were for girls (pink, sparkly)… it really is blatant.

My daughter’s a bit young for chemistry sets as yet, but she likes both dolls and tractors – I dread the day when she’s old enough to identify what she “should” and “shouldn’t” be playing with, as a girl.

On another note, I spotted a children’s cookbook “for girls” the other day… huh?

Lise // Posted 29 January 2009 at 12:41 pm

“I didn’t realise a male appendage was required to use chemistry kits – these days they usually come with solution stirrers.”

Nah, using anything other than a penis wouldn’t be ‘dangerous’ enough.

Saranga // Posted 29 January 2009 at 12:48 pm

“I didn’t realise a male appendage was required to use chemistry kits – these days they usually come with solution stirrers.”

LOL! Much much lols!

JenniferRuth // Posted 29 January 2009 at 1:53 pm

The gender division that is created in children’s toys is awful. More than that, it is just stupid – as if there is some sort of “enjoys chemistry, cars and robots” gene on the Y chromosone. I think it says a lot more about adults than it does about kids.

I have 3 brothers and 1 sister so when we were little, most toys were handed down or we were bought toys that we could all play with – a SNES, Ghostbusters toys, Monsters in my Pocket, etc. I had my fair share of girly things (Sullvanian Families being one obsession of mine) but my little brothers spent a fair amount of time playing with them too. My parents are actually pretty conservative, but they did a lot to encourage us to try lots of different things. When my Dad made a volcano out of kitchen stuff, we all helped him – not just the boys.

Every kid will go through a stage of only wanting “girl” or “boy” things, but that will only last if it is re-enforced by the adults around them.

eleanargh // Posted 29 January 2009 at 2:18 pm

This would make me sad if I were a Mum too – I’d like to play with my child and their chemistry set (woo, explosion time!), but I wouldn’t be allowed ’cause apparently it’s daddy’s job :(

Kez // Posted 29 January 2009 at 2:26 pm

Well, I think I may indulge my childhood cravings by buying a chemistry set for my daughter when she’s older (assuming she’s vaguely interested) – for some quality mother-daughter bonding time. :)

Actually I think almost all kids, male or female, adore mixing up solutions or “potions”.

Aimee // Posted 29 January 2009 at 3:40 pm

This is exactly the kind of poisonous crap I have vowed to keep my kids away from. I FUCKING hate the messages that things aimed at children send. I think the only way to help your children avoid it is to teach them at a very young age NOT to believe everything they see and hear. I know from experience that this is never as easy as it sounds.

Ruth Moss // Posted 29 January 2009 at 4:12 pm

Have to echo what everyone else said:

“I didn’t realise a male appendage was required to use chemistry kits – these days they usually come with solution stirrers.”

Genius. Comedy genius!

Ruth Moss // Posted 29 January 2009 at 4:17 pm

Facebook group against gender stereotyping of children’s toys.

George // Posted 29 January 2009 at 4:45 pm

I think this is a classic example of exactly why secondary education initiatives aimed at recruiting women into science do not work. From the earliest age, girls are taught to completely separate their self-identity from the scientific identity, leaving many with the idea that it “just isn’t for me”. Even I fall into the trap of gendering “hard” technology or science (think chemical engineering plants) as masculine, and I’m a self-identified technophile and philosopher of science!

Thoroughly depressing… until the all-too-vivid image of penis solution stirrers comes back, hahaha.

Mind you, my mum made a point of buying me a do-it-at-home Usbourne book of scientific experiments that resulted in much mess with red cabbage indicators and bicarbonate of soda – so I guess better products are out there, if all to uncommon.

Anne Onne // Posted 29 January 2009 at 6:23 pm

Welcome, Sabre! Nice to see lots of guest posts. This really bothers me, too, because as a kid I loved science (still do!) and I would have loved lots of science kits.

It’s such a shame to limit the appeal of kits: I remember the ones in those days (well, around 10 years ago or so) that I came accross were fairly neutral, which is to say maybe coded ‘boy’ in more subtle ways, but never that overtly. Why are we returning to an ever more fierce definition between ‘girls’ toys and boys’ toys’? Even the Mail is concerned!

I actually think this is harmful to both boys and girls: it’s a bad message to all those girls out there to imply that these kinds of cool activities aren’t for girls, or that they should only buy things with pink packaging. And it’s bad for boys, because it trains them from an early age to only buy things if they’re approved for boys/men. Sad all round.

That’s precisely why I didn’t like the ‘for girls’ and ‘for boys’ books: they set up different standards for what girls and boys should be interested in, and start training kids from a young age that only some interests are appropriate for them. It’ bad that boys aren’t allowed to be into crafts, but also bad that girls aren’t supposed to be into science or technology.

Not to mention that boys needn’t just bond with dads, all kids should bond with their parents, girls included ( remember some great experiments with my dad!), and that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with boys and their mums exploding things either. It feels so limiting, the way it’s presented.

Kath // Posted 29 January 2009 at 6:45 pm

My favourite Christmas present ever as a child was a chemistry set, and now I’m a chemist. It wasn’t packaged specifically “for boys” in those days* (ca 20 years ago) and it’s sad that that’s the direction things seem to be going in.

*Not saying things were better back then overall, just that my chemistry set had pictures of chemicals on the front and ‘gender-neutral’ colouring.

Betsy // Posted 29 January 2009 at 7:14 pm

I had a least two chemistry sets as a kid, and my favourite (male) four year old is obsessed with his toy kitchen and ‘cleaning’ the house.

Make of that what you will toy manufacturers.

Jess // Posted 29 January 2009 at 7:44 pm

As an academic turned chemistry teacher this stuff makes me so angry! I spend every day trying to right the discrepency between boys and girls in their continuation of science beyond GCSE. No wonder there’s still so much apathy with this sexist stuff still around… ooo it makes my test tube boil!

Renee // Posted 29 January 2009 at 8:27 pm

I understand that on a feminist blog it is important to point out the ways in which girls continue to be marginalized but as a mother of two boys I must point out that these stereotypes hurts them as well.

Despite the fact that their father and I try to encourage their interests often my eldest child expresses shame because his peers laugh at him for being girl like. You see he loves to sing, garden, cook, watch Dora the Explorer and play with my little ponies. Though we have provided a safe environment for him to grow the degree to which masculinity is disciplined often stops him from publicly pursuing his interests. We need to point out that deciding that certain behavior is masculine is ultimately harmful to both sexes.

Becky // Posted 29 January 2009 at 8:43 pm

My son getting teased for being himself is something that worries me, he loves lots of different things but his favourite toys at the moment are his toy kitchen, his buggy (& doll) and his huge dumper truck. I encourage him to play with whatever toys he enjoys, and so do the nursery he goes to. But when I bought him his own buggy for Christmas (because he loved the ones at nursery so much) I literally couldn’t find one that wasn’t pink. I didn’t set out to specifically find one that wasn’t and was shocked when I looked round that every single one was a bright pink! He loves it, but just about everyone who’s seen him with it has raised their eyebrows at the very least, more than a few making comments like “What do you expect, no male role model!” He’s 2 for goodness sake, let him play with what he enjoys! I’m not going to pigeon hole my boy just because other people are uncomfortable seeing him push his buggy around, but I have to say it does nag a little that at some point someone will say something to *him* instead of me and he’ll be upset.

Kez // Posted 29 January 2009 at 10:30 pm

Renee and Becky, I totally agree – I have an older son as well as a daughter, and it used to be a concern for me too. But he never really got teased much for being interested in “non-traditional” things (he also liked “boys” stuff like football). I’m happy to say that he has always been quite independently minded and not too concerned about following the crowd.

Becky – my daughter has a red dolls’ pram from Early Learning Centre which my mum bought her for Christmas. Not that there’s any reason why your son shouldn’t have a pink one, but I know what you mean about lack of choice!

Leigh // Posted 30 January 2009 at 9:12 am

If someone can send me the box dimensions I’ll put up some replacement box art that says ‘Chemistry for Girls’ and Chemistry for Girls & Boys. Email

Sabre // Posted 30 January 2009 at 10:15 am

Renee, Becky, Kez

I totally agree with you that gender stereotyping of toys is harmful to boys as well as girls (I hope I reflected this is my last sentence).

I have a brother who is 7 years younger than me, and I remember always making sure we shared toys where possible. (That’s how I finally got access to a train set btw!) He is now 19 and quite happily played with some dolls I bought for a birthday party last year. He cross-dressed Action Man with a Barbie – that made me feel happy! We both agreed the dress looked better on Ken. When we were younger my sis and I used to dress him up as a girl, but we also used to build lego structures together and play with toy cars. So I think we had a good mix of boy/girl playing despite our parents’ (well-intentioned) pushes for gendered play! It would have been perfect if only I had that chemistry set…

Ellie // Posted 30 January 2009 at 10:23 am

This is one of the things that makes me most angry, I actually have to restrain myself from damaging things when I’m in toy shops or department stores where they separate toys by gender.

I also think it’s harder for boys in this respect, but you have to remember that it’s harder for boys because ‘femininity’ and ‘girls things’ are worth less in our society which is why they get teased about liking them. Girls and women have that their entire lives. By default we are worth less.

Florence // Posted 30 January 2009 at 11:16 pm

Wow. Reading this made me realise how lucky I was – I was given a chemistry set when I was younger from my grandparents, as I’ve always been into science and such. There’s such a disparity between RL and my personal experience – being a Physics student, where at least 80% of my fellow students are male, even though I can’t say I’ve experienced any personal sexism/racism, it must be there, or the statistics wouldn’t be so disproportionate. This example merely highlights the way young girls encounter such sexism. Such a shame.

Lisa // Posted 2 February 2009 at 10:57 am

Toys and children’s clothes have become more not less gendered in recent decades. In the 70s there were not only many neutral toys but clothing was more androgenous, as was the long hair for both sexes. It was sometimes difficult to distinguish boys and girls. Girls were also able to play topless and both sexes able to play naked – as part of the natural liberation of the human body that was popular at the time and still is in other parts of Europe. (e.g. in France girls swimsuits often consist of just a bottom part and even pubescent girls are comfortable topless, what am I saying even adult women are so it really is a different culture altogther !)

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