As the late great James Brown once sang, “It’s a man’s man’s man’s world.” And while that may no longer hold true for society in general, the Godfather of Soul remains spot on when it comes to high tech.
According to the National Science Foundation, there are nearly five male engineers for every female one employed in the United States. This is even more true in Silicon Valley, where companies struggle to reach the 20 percent mark. Take my employer, for example. At Yahoo, where the CEO is both a woman and an engineer, men in technical positions still outnumber their female counterparts by more than four to one.
For the past few years we’ve seen a concerted effort to equalize the numbers by attracting girls to the so-called hard sciences, usually referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). And it’s coming from some surprising places. Earlier this month, Lego released a $20 Research Institute playset featuring three female scientist mini-figures, which immediately sold out.
Lego did this in part to quell the outcry from the “Friends” playsets the Danish company released in 2012, which featured female mini-figures who spend their time baking cupcakes, going to the mall, and modeling clothes. But they also did it because toys that appeal to a girl’s inner geek are going mainstream in a big way.
No cupcakes or catwalks here, just a Lego-sized astronomer, paleontologist, and chemist busy being scientific.
Unlike traditional building sets or electronics kits, these toys are (mostly) designed with girls in mind. The idea is to reinforce their excitement for building cool stuff before they become addicted to Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and spend all their parents’ money on K stars (don’t ask).
I talked to the founders of three companies who’ve created toys to combat gender stereotypes and teach kids tech. Not surprisingly, all are women who are also engineers.
There’s gold in them blox
When Debbie Sterling arrived at Stanford’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, she looked around and wondered where the rest of the women were. When she graduated — not the only woman in her class, but close to it — she decided to do something to reach young girls before they get shunted away from science. But, first, she did a lot of research into how children develop.
“Girls and boys are different — obviously,” says Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox. “Girls develop verbal skills earlier and enjoy narrative-based role playing. Nurturing is a big thing for them. If you want to teach them spatial reasoning, you have to tell them why they’re building something and who they’re doing it for.”
So Sterling created a series of stories about a hero named Goldie, an inventor who must build things in order to help others. Girls read the story and build the devices along with Goldie, using the pastel-colored building pieces included in each $20 to $30 kit. Along the way, the 4- to 9-year-olds learn the basics of force, friction, gears, levers, and more. Future narratives will incorporate lessons on circuits and coding.
The GoldieBlox site features a half-dozen adorable videos of these inventions in action, like this spinning machine created by 7-year-old Sabrina.
Sterling says she wants to “disrupt the pink aisle in toy stores” — the notion that girls’ toys can only be about princesses and pop stars.
One reason, Sterling says, is that the world needs more engineers — period. Because women are so underrepresented in STEM fields, they represent an enormous, mostly untapped, pool of talent.
The other reason? The more diverse the pool of creators, the better their inventions will be.
“Engineers build pretty much everything in our world, from phones to bridges,” she says. “People who are creating these things should represent the diversity of the population and bring those perspectives to what they build.”
A room with a clue
Four years ago, Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks were engineering students from Caltech and MIT, respectively, attending graduate school at Stanford. Like Debbie Sterling, they were tired of being virtually the only women in a field dominated by men. So after they collected their master’s degrees, they formed Roominate, a high-tech toy company aimed at girls 6 and older.
Roominate’s first product: a dollhouse featuring wheels, pulleys, levers, motors, and a series of interchangeable architectural pieces.
“We call it a dollhouse, but it gives you the ability to build anything,” Chen says. “Girls send us pictures and videos of the bridges, car washes, and rocket ships they’ve made with it.”
For $30 to $50 and a few hours’ time, Roominate lets you build your dream house. You will, however, have to be 6 inches tall to live inside it.
Roominate plans to release five more products next month, Chen says, including more elaborate houses and a kit that allows girls to build a helicopter, submarine, or airplane. It’s also expanding to major retailers like RadioShack, Toys R Us, and Walmart.
“When schools introduce the concept of circuits in the fourth grade, you see the boys get excited and the girls backing away,” she says. “We’re trying to expose girls to these things at a younger age, to build up their confidence and skills in these fields. Eventually we hope to build toys that teach more complex circuitry and programming.”
Bits and pieces
But not everyone agrees that girls need specialized products to draw them toward science or math.
“We have been very deliberate in making our product gender neutral,” says Ayah Bdeir, CEO and founder of littleBits, which sells electronics kits for kids age 8 and up. “We believe it’s reaffirming the stereotype to say, ‘We’re going to make this product exciting for girls to get them interested in science.’ That just makes things worse. We’re trying to make a product that’s gender neutral, democratic, and empowering for anyone.”
These littleBits circuits snap together magnetically and in only one direction, making it virtually impossible to screw things up.
I got to play with the Space Kit, one of a half-dozen littleBits products ranging from $99 to $199, and I have to say it’s amazingly easy. I can barely change a lightbulb without electrocuting myself, but I managed to build a simple circuit that responded to light or sound within a couple of minutes. If I’d kept going, I could have eventually built a working model of the Mars Rover using circuits and home construction materials.
Still, some 50 to 60 percent of littleBits’ younger users are girls, estimates Bdeir, who holds degrees in computer engineering and sociology. They usually start out more shy than boys, but once they connect their first circuit using littleBits’ magnetic parts, they get just as hooked.
Bdeir admits to having a “secret agenda” to increase the number of women in STEM fields, but she doesn’t stop there.
“We absolutely need more female engineers,” she says. “We also need more men running households. We need more balance in every profession. That’s how you make products richer and respectful of different communities.”
I wish these kinds of products had been around when my daughter was younger. I’m not convinced they would have turned her into more of a geek, but she’d certainly have more options open to her (and possibly fewer problems with algebra).
As Mr. Brown once sang, it may be a man’s world, “but it don’t mean a thing without a woman or a girl.” Especially if she knows how to build cool stuff.