The Princess and the Engineer

Engineering toy for girls is kickstarted in time for the holidays!

A new storybook, successfully funded through Kickstarter this fall, comes with a toolbox and construction kit, which let girls participate in the misadventures of the story’s mismatched shoe-wearing heroine. The kit, called GoldieBlox, is marketed expressly to girls and was created by engineer Debbie Sterling, a woman who had a passion for building all her life, but never associated her interest with the sciences until relatively late. When she became an engineering student at Stanford, Sterling was frustrated by the small number of fellow women in her program. So when after a few years in product design, she decided it was time to make a change in the world, she knew just where to start. Only 11% of engineers are women, and the number starts falling early. Sterling found that girls begin losing interest in science as young as age eight.

In her video on Kickstarter, Sterling remembers, “my parents never bought me Legos or Linkin’ Logs, and these toys develop spatial skills.” In fact Sterling never heard about engineering until she was in high school, and then, she remembers thinking, “it was no subject for a creative young woman.” Luckily a great college intro course convinced her otherwise, and now she’s using GoldieBlox to right the misconception.


Sterling spent a year researching the development of girls and how it differs from boys’. She describes that, in her research, it wasn’t so much the subject of toys that girls responded to (or failed to), but their format: “every time I’d watch a little girl get bored with the construction toy I brought over, I’d ask her what her favorite toy was. Time and time again, the girls kept bringing me books! This corroborated with a theme in the research that stated girls had strong verbal skills and enjoyed storytelling.”

Though Goldie Blox does not do away with gendered marketing entirely, its pink packaging will hopefully signal parents that building toys are indeed acceptable gifts for girls. Perhaps a toy store of the future, which no longer segregates its aisles at all would bring parents to the same conclusion and allow them to see their kids’ interests before their gender. But in the meantime, GoldieBlox is certainly more empowering than a doll, an EZ Bake oven, or many of the other domestically-oriented products that make up the pink toy canyons of the girls’ aisle. The rest of her findings were fascinating:

Can you share tips for moms who want to ensure their daughters feel open to exploring math and science in the home?
Even though the majority of construction toys, science kits, math games, etc. on the market now seem overtly marketed to boys, I wouldn’t let that shy parents away from getting them for their girls. I learned in my research that girls really love engaging with older role models: parents, teachers, siblings, babysitters. I think really encouraging girls to try this stuff out is key. Sometimes the themes and lessons are complicated. Rather than telling them how “smart” they are when they figure it out, it’s best to just praise them for working hard and trying.

Legos for girls and Architect Barbie both drew criticism for endorsing female stereotypes. What is your opinion of gender-based toys in general?
There is no denying that boys and girls are different. It’s a fact. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating products that appeal to the unique differences between the genders, in the same way products for adults are designed. However, I think there is a problem with the over-abundant gender stereotypes in children’s toys. Sure, some girls like princesses, but does this mean the entire toy aisle for girls needs to be jam-packed with them? Does this mean that girls who like princesses wouldn’t also like building, construction, math or science? This is the gap I am trying to fill. I think it has the potential to make an enormous difference in the lives of little girls who are determining their interests at a young age and learning who they want to be when they grow up. GoldieBlox stands apart from the rest because she is a much-needed female engineer role model character in a world where the rest of the math and science characters are currently male. Girls can relate to her, play with her, and learn engineering principles along the way. The best part is that boys can play with her, too. Although GoldieBlox was initially created to fill the gap in the construction toy aisle for girls, I do see it as a gender-neutral toy. My research shows that boys love it too. As I grow the brand, I plan to include male characters as well so that everyone feels included and inspired to play with engineering.

Can you share some of the findings about developmental differences between girls and boys? How important are these when compared to our expectations of gender differences, in your opinion?
My research shows that girls have strong verbal skills. They love stories and characters. They have a strong sense of empathy and nurturing (which is why they are drawn to soft textures, curved edges and certain colors). They want to help people (which is why I designed the narratives to have Goldie build machines that help her friends). Girls like situations where “everybody wins,” rather than where one winner defeats the rest. Boys, on the other hand, are more competitive and aggressive. They like to beat their opponent. They tend to enjoy games that are more physical and destructive in nature. They tend to be more drawn to play with physical objects, where girls are more into make-believe and story-driven play-acting. The great thing about GoldieBlox is that it is a blend of spatial and verbal skills—the best of both worlds. It gets girls who love reading into building, and boys who love building into reading.


Riley is one little girl not fooled by toy stores “tricks.” Her rant was picked up by Kickstarter and used to advertize Goldie Blox. In her own video, Sterling implores moms of apparent girlie-girls to, above all, take note, “As much as she likes dress-up and princess stuff—don’t get me wrong, I like that stuff, too—there’s so much more to her than that.” Goldie Blox lets her be all things