Women, STEM, and the Breaking of Stereotypes
In the last several weeks there has been a lot of media coverage regarding women in technology and girls’ dissatisfaction with gender stereotyping in consumer products.
As a female Information Technology Manager, I’ve had several years experience working within Information Technology and online departments. My colleagues have been mostly men (very supportive men). At times, my “customers” don’t believe what I say about their computers. Only after they sought additional help, would they come back and say, “Julie, you were right after all!” My response is typically to smile and say, “I’m glad it has been resolved for you.” When in reality I’d love to thank them for wasting both their time and my time. I’m not right all the time, and I’ll be the first to admit when I need to confer with another colleague to resolve an issue. However, I was hired for my specific skills, knowledge, and expertise. Just because you don’t like what I’m saying, doesn’t mean I’m incorrect.
Too frequent are women in technology judged not by their actual skills but by their gender.
Some recent examples include Goldman Sach’s swag at a Harvard hackathon event for women. The biggest sponsor of the WEcode (Women Engineers Code) event handed out cosmetic mirrors and nail files to the attendees. They’ve since apologized, but what does this message send to young females? “You can code and make cool things, as long as you are pretty when you do it”? Would Goldman Sach’s have provided deodorant and razors to a men’s hackathon?
When women are brave enough to display their STEM skills, they are often “thanked” with comments about their looks or sexuality. Emily Graslie discusses natural history, science, and the artifacts found at the Field Museum (Chicago) on her YouTube channel, “The Brain Scoop“. In her November 27, 2013 post, “Where My Ladies At?”, she discusses how her comment feed is flooded with inappropriate innuendos and statements about her physical appearance. She also states that there are very few women on YouTube who discuss STEM. Women fear being judged on ridiculous irrelevant topics (ie their looks), instead of their expertise. Therefore, many women opt out of making their knowledge public. The problem with this is that it shows the younger generation of females to hide their skills and to be ashamed of their abilities.
Gender stereotypes are also played out in consumer products. The Nintendo Girls Channel on YouTube was recently launched and was very much a disappointment to female gamers. The channel is clad in pink and contain gaming mods that take girls on shopping sprees and spa makeover adventures. Pink is definitely for girls, and I have purchased quite a few pink items in my day. But that’ a strategic move– if I had a pink travel coffee mug or a pink baseball mitt, it was guaranteed it would remain mine and not confiscated by my brothers.
Girls are seeing beyond the pink and asking to break the stereotypes. A young girl recently wrote to Lego asking why there are not more Lego Girls with cool jobs. She was very aware that Lego boy characters had many more adventurous careers and wanted the company to rectify this inequality. A teenager also wrote to Disney, petitioning that they design their Princesses with more diverse body shapes. It’s uplifting to see the younger generation speaking out about gender stereotypes and their discontent for the world as designed by adults.
And there’s still more hope. “Hello Ruby” by Linda Liukas succeeded in funding her children’s book on kickstarter. Her goal is to teach children about programming. The use of a female main character, Ruby, positively encourages girls to pursue an interest in technology and programming. Another company, GoldieBlox, encourages girls to build and pursue an interest in inventing and engineering. The company has turned “construction toys” from boys toys to a gender neutral toy. In the process GoldieBlox has introduced the fun of engineering and problem solving to girls. If I could, I would work for GoldieBlox.
Another uplifting story is the recent report by TechCrunch that Berkeley’s Intro to Computer Science course now has more women than men enrolled. Granted, there are only two more women than men, but it’s still progress. This progress was attributed to a change in the curriculum that included team projects, open-source resources, and opportunities to become teaching assistants.
It’s important to continue to encourage young girls and women to pursue STEM classes. To continue to question a company’s idea for girls’ toys. And for those of us who are currently pursuing STEM careers, to be forthright in our skills and to publicize the benefits of pursuing challenging careers. In doing so, we can encourage youth to pursue their interests in STEM without fear of judgement.