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Companies boost efforts to market products linking girls and science

“People say sexism isn’t continuing right now, but if we can’t get the same T-shirts as men, how can we ever be equal?” — Carmen De Benedictis, high school student

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“People say sexism isn’t continuing right now, but if we can’t get the same T-shirts as men, how can we ever be equal?” — Carmen De Benedictis, high school student

This summer, Lands’ End was forced to admit it flunked science when a New Jersey mom posted a letter on the company’s Facebook page lamenting the lack of “cool science shirts” for her NASA-loving, 9-year-old daughter.

The Wisconsin-based company produces lots of science-themed clothing options for boys. And now, finally, they’ve released two shirts for girls — one with a solar system and another that reads “NASA Crew” — just in time for back-to-school.

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“In this case, we missed it,” said Michele Casper, spokeswoman for Lands’ End. “In no way did we mean to be gender stereotyping. Overall, in general, it was great feedback.”

The quick response pleased Carmen De Benedictis, a 15-year-old from Cambridge who described Lands’ End’s shirt shortsightedness as “scary.”

“It freaked me out a little, to be honest. People say sexism isn’t continuing right now, but if we can’t get the same T-shirts as men, how can we ever be equal?” she said.

Being female and Muslim, De Benedictis said she’s “very aware of a lot of stereotypes” and how society perpetuates them.

“The reason science T-shirts don’t sell for girls is there aren’t any,” she said. “Girls never have the opportunity to buy them. If they did, it would be a huge market — just in Cambridge and Boston alone.”

It’s a delicate subject for companies that market to children. Both Gap and Gymboree declined comment on their approach to merchandising along gender lines. But Lands’ End was only the latest retailer to come under fire. Last year, The Children’s Place pulled its “My Best Subjects” shirt for girls that checked off “shopping,” “music,” and “dancing.” Left blank was “math” because “nobody’s perfect,” the shirt read.

Earlier this year, Lego announced a new collection of figures titled “Research Institute,” featuring a female paleontologist, astronomer, and chemist. The set, which made its debut on the Danish company’s e-commerce this summer and quickly sold out, was prompted by criticism from fans who complained about the purple-boxed Lego Friends line — which tends to highlight female characters — and its one-dimensional settings: cafes, spas, and pools.

“It’s not fair,” said Madeleine Cole, who attended a camp called Design & Build Workshop in Newton recently. “Girls can like science, too.”

At the weeklong camp, Cole, who is 8, made a car from Popsicle sticks, packing peanuts, and feathers, then raced it with an egg atop its frame down a ramp.

“It’s really fun to create stuff and see what it does,” she said.

Cole said she would wear both of the Lands’ End shirts, and Connie Chow of the Science Club for Girls expects her students would as well. The executive director of the nonprofit, which provides free science and engineering programs to girls in kindergarten through high school, said gender stereotyping in advertising and media is often part of the conversation she has with Science Club girls.

“We have them look at ads and catalogs. Some companies have the same jacket for boys and girls in different colors, but they will show boys in action shots and girls looking pretty,” said Chow. “What [the Lands’ End controversy] shows is that it can be done and it can be easily done. Let’s do more of it.”

Jill Radsken can be reached at jill.radsken@gmail.com.
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