I recently stumbled across a Tedx done by the CEO and Creator of GoldieBlox, Debbie Sterling. Sterling, who has engineering degree from Stanford realized that part of the discrepancy between the number of male and female engineers might actually start at a very young age. The focus of her idea was that toys marketed towards girls don’t encourage them learn the basic concepts of engineering and that means they have no interest in it when it comes time to pick a career.
The thing that caught my attention is the first question that Sterling asks the audience. She asks them to close their eyes and picture an engineer. Then she polls the audience to see what they were thinking about. Some pictured a nerdy guy sitting at a computer, others a train driver and some a “Mark Zuckerberg”-type in a hoodie. The striking part came when she asked how many pictured an engineer who looked like her and there were not that many hands raised. This is something we’re all guilty of because only 11 percent of engineers are women. But, as Sterling points out, nearly 50 percent of the population is female, so it would be beneficial to have the female perspective when designing things that are changing the world. The problem is figuring out why this is happening and also figuring out how to solve the problem.
The encouraging part about this, at least to me, comes after Sterling says that as a female engineer she "doesn’t fit in." It’s a depressing thought, but okay. However, she follows up with, “I don’t fit in, but I believe that our little girls will.”
It’s a rarely expressed sentiment, but things will get better. Here's the deal. My generation has had a lot of opportunities not available to those before us. But, I want better for my daughters, nieces, little sisters, and anyone who wants the opportunity. I think a 50/50 breakdown in the world of engineering can only bring about good things. But, we're not there yet.
Cultural versus biological
Girls lose interest in math and science around age six, but a new study suggests this is a cultural norm rather than a biological edict. Researchers tested boys and girls from 65 different countries on science skills. In all the countries except for the United States, the girls outperformed the boys.
The problem, she suggests, is girls lack a true understanding of engineering and what it means to be an engineer. After all, Sterling only tried engineering on the advice of a high school math teacher. But why should it take until high school (or later) to realize an interest in engineering when we could start so much earlier by providing the right tools. The key—which ties into the toy—is showing girls that engineering isn’t just a “boy thing,” but rather a career path that allows you to design and invent.
I don't fit in
She also tells an interesting anecdote about an engineering drawing class. She talks about struggling with the material and wanting to quit before a classmate stuck up for her and promised to help. She passed the class and earned her degree. Later she learned that many women struggle with spatial skills, a main component of perspective drawing in engineering. Meanwhile, kids who play with construction blocks or Lincoln logs while they’re growing up have very strong spatial skills. Those toys are what gets kids interested in engineering, not—as Sterling notes—the dolls and makeup kits that are considered “girls toys.” (You can watch the entire story starting at 6:45).
Sterling sums up my feelings about that pretty strongly: “It’s not fair.” This led to the GoldieBlox toy, which combines engineering skill sets with a story about a female heroine designed especially for little girls. Using the kits, girls can develop skills sets like creating a belt drive, developing spatial skills, learning about hinges and levers or using their own creativity to DIY an engineering design. You can't even hate on the idea. At worst, it's an extra toy. At best, it could change some little girl's life.
Sterling's thesis throughout the speech is simply: “I don’t fit in.” It’s not something that defeated her, but it’s something that was a constant throughout her schooling and career. That’s what needs work.
Girls rule the world
If you watched the Superbowl last weekend, you might have seen a 30-second commercial for Goldieblox, which was created for the company after winning a contest by Intuit Quickbooks. The video focuses on girls using Goldieblox to send all the traditional “girl toys” off on a rocket.
It’s all very inspiring, but we’re not there yet. Only 20 percent of degrees in engineering, science and tech are given to women, yet women account for about 60% of total bachelor’s degrees. So, yes, women are outperforming men in college and entering in greater numbers, but they’re not securing degrees in engineering. It makes you wonder. Is this discrepancy because women truly aren’t interested (a totally legitimate excuse) or because they’re just not sure what engineering is or because they realize on some level that they’re not going to fit in.
That’s not to say we’re not moving in a less divided direction. Companies recognize the importance of a diverse perspective. Groups that champion female engineers and connect them with mentors are springing up. Women like Sterling are doing what they can to help the next generation. But more importantly, there is a slowly changing cultural norm that encourages girls to develop a wide range of skills and understanding of careers so they can pick the one where they do fit in.