If You Give A Girl A Puzzle

Let’s Put The Pieces Together

When the currently popular and substantially profitable “girl empowerment marketing ” becomes a story of saving girls from their mindless, idle feminine selves, we need to take a step back and consider how well we really understand today’s girls and what goes on in their hearts and minds. Let us compare and contrast two ads that came out this week, both offering very different messages about girls and STEM.

In one ad, the girl is shown as a natural-born scientist who uses inspiration from the world around her to bring her ideas to life.

In the other ad, the girls are shown as mindless robots who need the presence of a savior product in order to be rescued from themselves.

Ignoring for the moment this is an advert for a controversial oil company……Pay attention to the details of the story being told here. Children don’t play with toys the way they are marketed or intended to be played with. Curiosity is innate in the child. A knack for STEM is already inside a girl. A good toy sparks innovation and wonder. A good toy can be many different things, even the least likely of things.

The other viral video from this week is a commercial for a toy company and also has us thinking about girls and STEM, but this one  further divides the girl side of the gendered, segmented children’s toy market into 1) sneaker-wearing, hammer-wielding Tomboy Girls and 2) glammed up, brainwashed one-dimensional Barbie Girls. In the Goldie Blox ad the “sparkly girls”, also sometimes referred to as “tutu girls”, are robotic pink-wearing drones who soak up gender norm and beauty messages without question. These girls and their pink tunnel vision are the problem, until they are saved by Goldie and her hammer.


Girl empowerment? Buyer beware.

Attack the media and marketing that sell girls short, yes. Challenge a generation of parents who fail to think critically about the media and toys they provide their children. But let’s back off the attacks on girls and how they do girlhood.

There is a difference between a girl-centric business using “girl power” as a marketing gimmick and a business centered in authentic girl empowerment. May I suggest we think twice about bashing the intellectual capabilities of girls who play with Barbies, enjoy fashion and glam, or who by genetic lottery fit the beauty norm? None of those things are mutually exclusive to also liking or being good at STEM pursuits.

My Friends, fashion dolls are not the hill you want to die on. While definitely an imperfect toy that require parents to assist with unpacking messages, insisting fashion dolls are the root cause of the Failure of Girls demonstrates a profound lack in understanding how girls really play and think. The Shell ad showcases this beautifully.

From Shell's How Will You Change The World? video

From Shell’s How Will You Change The World? video

Barbie isn’t the enemy. Limitation is. The Goldie Blox spot tried to show this, but the message came off as: Pink sparkle girls who play with Barbies and enjoy glam dress-up are mindless idiots who must be saved from their soulless selves. Girls who play with Barbie are no less capable of innovation, creativity, demonstrating STEM skills, and driving a successful education and professional career years down the road. They can be pretty and feminine while doing it. There are many ways to be a girl.

As a mom said on my facebook page and I have to completely agree based on my own family’s experiences, “The Goldie Blox building sets are frustrating and fall apart as you are building them. There is very little that you can actually do with them. My daughter has had more creative and imaginative play with her *gasp* Barbie dolls.”

This isn’t a debate between Goldie Blox or Barbie, there is room for both on the shelf and both serve a purpose. The Goldie Blox ad is a great ad, as far as advertising goes. Goldie Blox’s newly released zip line set and movie machine set are neat. But for those of us truly invested in girl empowerment, our focus should be on how we are using, depicting, and profiting from girls in marketing. Let’s be mindful of what problems and deficits we are being marketed about our girls versus what we know to be true as we watch them grow day in and day out.

EVERY GIRL has a scientist inside of her. Girls are not the problem, we are. We’ve forgotten how to draw the curiosity out of her, we’ve stopping expecting it from her, and we’ve stopped giving her opportunities to explore it, experiment with it, and expand on it. We’ve listened to what the media wants us to believe about our troubled girls, and bought it hook, line, and sinker.

Girls know better, they are waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

At breakfast these girls were playing Barbie. By lunch they were examining specimens at the Smithsonian. My 5yo niece is instructing my 6yo son on what to do with his QVR code.


If you give a girl a puzzle, she’ll want to solve it.

And she’ll likely want another one. 

When she’s finished, she’ll put on her favorite science goggles. 

Then she’ll call all her friends over and you’ll need puzzles and goggles for them, too. 

After the puzzles, they’ll want to go outside and make a fort. 

When the girls finish getting dirty building the fort they’ll find a toy to take apart and rebuild. 

Of course, when she’s finished she’ll want a science experiment. 

And chances are, if you give her all these STEM opportunities, 

she’ll grow up knowing she was a scientist, engineer, and mathematician all along. 

Let's be very careful with what we presume about our girls, their interests, and abilities.

Let’s be very careful with what we presume about our girls, their interests, and abilities.


Exploring the Smithsonian Qurios lab.

Exploring the Smithsonian Qurios lab.

GIrls are fully capable of being multi-dimenisonal.

GIrls are fully capable of being multi-dimenisonal.

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.