Girl-Centric Gimmicks vs Authentic Girl Empowerment

There is a difference between a girl-centric business using “girl power” as a marketing gimmick, and a business centered in girl empowerment.


I get angry when someone comes into the girl empowerment space, co-opts the messaging, uses gender stereotypes to promote a product that poses as “girl power”, and does so using deceitful and possibly illegal marketing practices. I get angry because ultimately, this hurts our girls.

It also does a huge disservice to the people who work so hard here and work authentically and honestly. It weakens our message and sends us backwards. It also gives our detractors more ammunition to discredit the movement as a whole. I have too much skin in the game to sit back and watch it happen.

This is not how I would run my business and I would be ashamed if it were my brand in the center of this kind of controversy. Each day it seems to get thicker and thicker for Goldie Blox. While everyone is losing their minds over the Beastie Boy/Goldie Blox fair use law suit we have yet to get into whether or not Goldie Blox switched the ad that is being voted on for the Intuit Super Bowl competition, or just allowed the press to mislead voters. That story getting light might actually break twitter. For those of you who swear to me that you voted for the “Girls” ad, you should know that their Kickstarter video is now the ad featured on the Intuit page.

I was an early supporter (with reservations) of Goldie Blox, but after the princess pageant toy and what has developed since last Thursday, I’m out.  I really wanted to believe in them and see great things, but I don’t see those things anymore.

I know there are some people out there who still love and defend what Goldie Blox is doing. Asking people to think critically about this is not bashing or harming feminism. No one is above criticism and if this were a Mattel or Disney pulling these stunts, we’d be all over it. Just because the company is owned by a young woman and positions itself as a scrappy start-up does not render them off-limits. This isn’t a cat fight between female business owners. My job is to educate parents about the marketing practices around gendered toys to kids. Goldie Blox is most definitely a part of that conversation. Is Goldie Blox a brilliant toy? In my opinion, no. Is Debbie Sterling a master marketer? It would seem so.

In fact, her engineering background has now come into question as today it was widely circulated she has spent the past several years working in marketing and as a brand strategist. I feel duped, as that was not how she presented herself in the Kickstarter video. I thought she was an engineering grad working in an engineering career with an interest in empowering girls. That is what I used to think.

There is a difference between a girl-centric business using “girl power” as a marketing gimmick, and a business centered in girl empowerment. Herein lies the difference…….

There is enough negative attention on who is doing this girl empowerment stuff wrong. Let us instead focus on who is doing it right. Can a girl empowerment small business succeed in the marketplace without pandering to pink, princess, and stereotypes? Yes. My business is nearing year five years in the market, I’m global, and doing great. I have a book coming out in January called “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween“. I work with my large parent community every day all day on education, communication, and encouraging their choices in healthy, empowering media for their kids. I co-founded the Brave Girls Alliance this summer. Like I said, skin in the game.

So here is how you do this right — when you have a business with products that aim to inspire and empower kids and you need a theme song for the product line called “Redefine Girly”, you turn to a local female signer/song writer to compose and record an original song that highlights what you have done and hope to achieve.

Companies I think that  you should check out that do great things and are run by people who get it:

Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies – Apparel and gifts for Full of Awesome kids, over fifty designs customized to any color tee or tote.

Princess Free Zone – Offers tees, a book about a tool-loving girl and her group of friends, and an original theme song.

Go! Go! Sports Girls – Adorable dolls that encourage girls in sports.

Lottie Dolls – Interesting collection of dolls that show there are many ways to be a girl.

Toward the Stars – Marketplace full of great choices in toys, books, apparel.

Handsome in Pink – Great apparel that defies gender stereotypes.

Roominate – Now this seriously gets kids building.

Want some great STEM toy suggestions for boys and girls? Check this list out.

Who do you love? What other small businesses should we know about? Tell us about them in the comments!

There is room for more in this space, you just have to enter here knowing that we’re going to hold you accountable.

Interested in learning more about critical thinking, media literacy, girl empowerment, and marketing to kids? Here is our Resources Page, packed with great folks we are proud to call our colleagues.


  1. A Mighty Girl is amazing!

  2. Wait, a person with an engineering degree doesn’t count as an engineer if she does something else at some point in her life?

    I like your site, and almost always find that your own approach to gendered marketing lines up with mine.

    But I also take a pretty emphatically middle of the road stand on whether there is one right answer to get from where we are today to the ideal world of all kids of all genders being awesome, brave, and creative in the ways they choose — particularly when it comes to STEM education. That means I think there is room for both my favorite types of gender-neutral construction toys in primary colors building houses and cars and airports and dragons to build with my daugther and son together, AND for things that are aimed at one gender, to take a world that has a “pink aisle” and put stuff in it that is better, that will reach kids who might otherwise get a princess dress-up kit.

    For some reason, I find myself identifying, but not agreeing with the GoldieBlox folks — I went to a prestigious engineering school with lots of people who worked their butts off to get degrees in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, etc… and some of them wore lipstick and skirts to their job interviews and worked for massive multinational corporations straight out of school, both in engineering at Ford and in marketing at Proctor and Gamble. These huge companies do work pretty hard to woo smart people who can do math, to woo men and women in equal numbers, and they even have budgets to make shiny ads in places like the Society of Women Engineers magazine to make an active outreach effort to hire women. Who then might wind up in marketing — not because marketing is a wimpy airhead career only for girls, but because these companies find it incredibly important to have smart people working it them. (Plus, user research to make your awesome brilliant invention friendly to the people who might buy it, and market research to understand who is going to buy your awesome brilliant invention both tend fall under the umbrella of “technical marketing” at many of these places, and are fundamentally important for smart minds to be involved with – it’s not just “should the toothpaste in the tube be blue or green?”)

    An engineer who spent a few years in her early career figuring out how to build a product that can sell should not have the work she did to get her engineering degree dismissed, just because her resume says she worked in marketing along the way. I’d sure hope that an engineer who wants to start a company that reaches millions of kids has some expertise in understanding the market, for that matter!

    Why do we have to undermine what these young women are doing by saying they’re not real engineers and they don’t actually care about girls, rather than saying we think they’re doing it wrong, and buying other products that are more reflective of how we’d rather see the toy industry look? (Despite the best of intentions, the mistakes, the viral videos and kickstarters…I just don’t see this toy taking off! But that doesn’t mean we should say “you have to do it this way or you’re not really an engineer.” or accuse people of being phony because they actually want to sell millions of toys to reach millions of girls, not sell dozens of toys to reach dozens of girls and boys, or millions of toys

    • I’m not questioning Debbie’s degree in engineering. But a person who gets a law degree and then goes on to work as a flight attendant would not call themselves a “lawyer”. Debbie is a marketer with an engineering degree. That is not at all how she presented herself in the Kickstarter video.

      There is a difference, and the difference is an important one.

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