‘Tis the season. As we say goodbye to the Thanksgiving weekend, here in the UK the commercial breaks are crammed with advertisements for toys in the frenetic rush to Christmas.
Every year the Toy Retailers Association predicts the top 10 most popular toys in the UK. A quick glance at the list reveals what most parents are all too aware of: toys are as divided by gender as the children they are designed to entertain. For boys there is the Nerf Stampede Gun, Fireman Sam Fire Station, Paper Jamz Guitar and Buzz Lightyear; girls get the Fur Real Go Go White Pooch (no, I am not making this up), Sylvanian Families and Zhu Zhu Grooming Salon.
To be absolutely scientific, there are two toys whose packaging features both girls and boys (Pumpaloons and the VTech Kidizoom Video Cam), but these are rarities not just in the bestseller lists but also across all five floors of Hamleys toy shop. Trust me, I know. I have three seven-year-olds, two of whom would die for a Nerf Stampede Gun and one who would adore a Zhu Zhu Grooming Salon for her already-beloved pink Zhu Zhu, a squeaking, chirruping motorised hamster.
While there is absolutely nothing new or unpredictable in this and I have no wish to launch into a 1970s feminist invective on the iniquities of gender stereotyping, the fact remains in Toyland girls get to cuddle and nurture while boys get to fight, construct and puzzle out. The latest available figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency in the UK show a widening gap between male- and female-dominated subjects at degree level. In 2008-09, there were just 16,000 women reading engineering and technology versus 86,500 men, and 14,000 female computer science students versus 60,000 males.
If girls of seven do not learn the pleasures of playing strategy games or constructing something complex and learning how it works, how can we expect them to take to engineering at the age of 18? And if women do not study engineering, technology and computer science, how are we to see them take their place in the executive offices of leading companies?
If Cynthia Carroll, the chief executive of Anglo-American, had not read geology, she would not be heading up one of the world’s largest mining companies. It nearly did not happen: “I had major interests in art history, literature and languages. I had to do a science so I thought I’d get it over with, and a tour guide advised geology. It was my first semester. I was hooked,” she said when interviewed for the FT’s Top 50 Women in Business recently.
Would Ellen Kullman have risen to run DuPont, one of the oldest US “science-based” companies, without her degree in mechanical engineering? Probably not. Would we have seen Anne Lauvergeon head up Areva, the French builder of nuclear reactors, lacking her strong academic background in physics? Hardly.
So while I am happy for my daughter to play with her miniature turtle family and equally happy for my sons to construct Lego spaceships this Christmas, I do wonder: am I already predetermining their ultimate career choices by my feeble acquiescence?