[New Barbies honour six women in health care who have been on the front lines in the fight against Covid-19. Source: Mattel Inc]
Last month, toymaker Mattel launched a line of Barbie dolls to celebrate women scientists as role models; and inspire girls into STEM careers. Sarah Gilbert, a 59-year-old professor at Oxford University and co-developer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, is one of six women who has a new Barbie fashioned after her—with long auburn hair, oversized black glasses, and donning a sensible navy blue pantsuit and white blouse. “It's a very strange concept having a Barbie doll created in my likeness,” Gilbert said in an interview for Mattel. “I hope it will be part of making it more normal for girls to think about careers in science.”
This represents a long way from the time when LEGO for girls meant pastel bricks in the pink aisle. Growing up in India in the nineties, I often heard the refrain in the classroom and playground that one couldn’t “fight nature”, and that “boys like building, girls like princess dolls and pink”.
Research shows that, at age six, girls are already less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart.” By their teenage years, girls’ and boys’ definitions of gender roles mirror those of the adult population.
I remember when I was growing up, I thought twice before raising my hand in my math class, even when I was 100% sure I had the right answer. It was a ritual for me to silently practice what I wanted to say out loud, before I actually said it. Many of my perfectly sound ideas were left unsaid because of fear—fear of making a mistake, of being wrong, of being embarrassed, or of simply not being perfect. This continued until I reached Bryn Mawr College in my undergrad years, where for the first time, I felt empowered in a conducive, all-women’s learning environment to choose and persist in a STEM field.
Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a non-profit working to close the gender gap in technology, echoes that this underconfidence cripples several more. As Reshma explains in her TED Talk, “Women are being left behind. And it means our economy is being left behind on all the innovation and problems women would solve if they were socialized to be brave, instead of socialized to be perfect. For the American economy, for any economy to grow—to truly innovate—we cannot leave behind half our population. We have to socialize our girls to be comfortable with imperfection, and we’ve got to do it now.”
How can we encourage girls not to cast away the STEM path?
Gender biases and norms develop early in life. Parents, teachers, companies and not-for-profit organizations can play a role in educating young girls about these biases and in correcting influences that help foster them. In particular, we can encourage girls by shining three forms of light on the STEM path:
1. Everyday connections to STEM
It is essential that a STEM mindset is instilled among students, especially girls, in the very early stage of their education and development to dispel biases. To develop a scientific temperament and a nuanced STEM mindset, help your daughter see how a STEM background empowers her to create virtually everything that is useful and helps people—ranging from the more obvious examples like bridges, cell phones and computers, to the less obvious examples like diapers, beauty products, and performance fabrics.
One important way in which children develop these daily connections to STEM is through their toys and playtime. Delhi-based Smartivity is one of the biggest players in the STEM toy market in India. To reorient children from being “consumers” to “makers”, Smartivity manufactures a range of toys that illustrate practical scientific concepts ranging from gear ratio to centrifugal force. Unfortunately, their market is also reflective of the gender biases towards STEM that perpetuate later in life. As Tushar Amin, co-founder and chief creative officer, told The Hindu, “Seventy percent of our users are boys because parents are reluctant to buy construction toys for girls.”
However, there are several toy companies that have cracked the code on how to make STEM fun, relatable and engaging for a diverse group of girls with their content and products. One example is Goldieblox, which went from Kickstarter success to the shelves of Toys "R" Us and Amazon, where its products are bestsellers with more than 1 million sets of narrative-driven construction toys sold across more than 6,000 major retailers worldwide. After noticing the vast gender gap in her own Stanford University engineering class, Debbie Sterling decided to launch Goldieblox to encourage girls as young as four years old to start tinkering with toys and building simple machines. Months of market research suggested that though construction toys truly help develop spatial skills and are a good precursor for engineering, they have been heavily marketed towards boys for the longest time. Rather than simply painting boys’ toys pink, Sterling decided that tailoring construction toys for girls with a woven-in narrative to cater to their inherently honed verbal skills would be the key to creating a lasting product. Goldieblox’s first character, Goldie, was introduced in a combined storybook and construction set teaching girls how to build a belt drive.
2. Role models
Aside from exposure to STEM in daily life, it’s also important for girls to be exposed to women in STEM in order to have role models that will inspire them. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” My corollary to that is: “Help her see what she can be.” The more stories we tell about female scientists and engineers, the more likely girls are to be open to or pursuing a similar career.
Goldieblox transcended being just another toy construction set maker because they developed the world's first female engineer character, Goldie. Sharing her stories through books and live action YouTube series is helping fill an enormous gap in the landscape of children’s toys and media—the lack of strong female characters to help the next generation of girls self-identify as “makers”.
One of Mattel’s newer lines of Barbie dolls—which includes an astrophysicist, a conservationist, an entomologist, a marine biologist and a nature photojournalist—was designed with input from Nalini Nadkarni, a University of Utah biology professor who studies rainforest canopies and how plants get their nutrients. The forest ecologist saw the merit in creating dolls to teach children about the natural world, especially those children whose families or schools were unable to take them to a zoo or a museum. “So we started making them ourselves,” she said to the University of Washington, her alma mater. “It was me and the students in my lab.” She took samples of her dolls to conferences to share with others in the scientific community and to deliver the message that they could all do more to engage the broader public. In 2003, The New York Times profiled Nadkarni’s efforts and her “Treetop Barbie” to bring science to a wider audience.
Even beyond the toys that girls play with, we need to consciously expose young girls to role models in everyday life who show them that they can grow up to be more than the princess that needs rescuing. For instance, 13-year-old Anushka Naiknaware invented a bandage that signals when it needs to be changed. And a 9-year-old Californian named Samaira Mehta invented the board game CoderBunnyz to teach kids, like her younger brother, how to code.
3. Opportunities to learn by doing
Cultivating a STEM mindset is about becoming a critical thinker and problem solver, by experimenting and challenging the status quo using technology as a tool.
In school, teachers should embrace hands-on learning experiences and give students the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. A study, Closing the STEM Gap, published by Microsoft, surveyed more than 6,000 girls and young women on their interest in and perceptions of science, technology, engineering and math. The study showed that girls who were in STEM clubs and activities, outside of typical schoolwork, reported greater confidence in knowing how to pursue a STEM-related career than those who were not.
Closer home, Anu Acharya, CEO of Mapmygenome, reminisced in the first conversation of the Hustle Fuel series about how her father taught her and her siblings to make toothpaste from husk, and how that was a crucial first step in developing a scientific temper. Shruti Gandhi, founding engineer ar Array Ventures, spoke of how she taught herself coding and got a job at a computing lab to demonstrate college readiness by actually “doing” what she would learn there.
All of this is not to say that more girls must pursue STEM-related academic paths and careers. But as they make their way towards their final destination, let’s strive to make that path well lit and intentional, and not the one of least resistance.
(Hustle Fuel represents my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.)
About the Hustle Fuel series: Hustle Fuel, a Founding Fuel series, looks at the world of work and entrepreneurship from a woman’s lens. Building a company or a meaningful career is brutal, and role models for a path less trodden are always invaluable. The Hustle Fuel series is relevant especially for women—but not just for women.
Thriving in the evolving workforce demands ‘hustle fuel’. It demands having to punch above one’s weight to earn a seat at the table—not because you are a woman but because you are the right person for the job. Interestingly, it just so happens that this hustle fuel is precisely the attitude any entrepreneur needs to survive. Whether a man, woman, or from an ethnic minority community.