The Future of Women in STEM May Begin in the Toy Aisle

Women are underrepresented in STEM fields, but one Stanford graduate is working to effect change and shatter stereotypes before they have time to take hold.

If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. — First Lady Michelle Obama

The idea that the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are dominated by men isn’t just a stereotype. Here are a few disquieting statistics:

  • Despite the fact that the majority of students enrolled in postsecondary education are women, in 2009–2010, females made up just 24% of participants in postsecondary STEM programs nationally.
  • Less than 20% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science go to women, and women only hold 27% of all computer science jobs.
  • Women currently earn 41% of doctoral degrees awarded in STEM fields but make up only 28% of tenure-track faculty in those fields.
  • Less than 20% of engineers and computer scientists are women.
  • According to a recent Census Bureau report, among science and engineering graduates, men are employed in a STEM occupation at twice the rate of women, at 31% for men compared to 15% for women.

Why aren’t there more women in these fields? Eileen Pollack, a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan who is currently working on a book about women in the sciences, set out to answer that question in a recent New York Times piece. In it, she pointed to long-held biases, lack of encouragement, teasing on the part of both teachers and male peers, and a host of other discouraging factors that may be behind the absence of women in science.

“Maybe boys care more about physics and computer science than girls do,” says Pollack. “But an equally plausible explanation is that boys are encouraged to tough out difficult courses in unpopular subjects, while girls, no matter how smart, receive fewer arguments from their parents, teachers, or guidance counselors if they drop a physics class or shrug off an AP exam.”

Pollack went on to suggest that “the most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.”

After graduating from Stanford with a degree in product design, Debbie Sterling decided to tackle this very problem head on. Two years ago, she launched GoldieBlox, a toy company whose products are aimed at upending gender stereotypes. In a recent interview, Sterling described the thought process that went into the creation of GoldieBlox.

“I thought back to my childhood with the princesses and the ponies and wondered why construction toys and math and science kits are for boys,” said Sterling. “We wanted to create a cultural shift and close the gender gap and fill some of these jobs that are growing at the speed of light.”

The GoldieBlox website elaborates on her mission, stating that “by designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.”

Last month, GoldieBlox posted a video titled “Princess Machine” on YouTube and it quickly went viral:

The video originally featured a clever reworking of the Beastie Boys song "Girls," which was recently removed due to a copyright dispute with the band. And it's unfortunate, because the lyrics were truly inventive and featured such trailblazing sentiments as:

     Girls to build a spaceship.
     Girls to code a new app.
     Girls to grow up knowing
     That they can engineer that!

As a girl whose childhood toys included Rainbow Bright, Strawberry Shortcake, and My Little Pony (and don’t get me wrong—those toys were pretty awesome in their own right back in my day), I find GoldieBlox and similar products to be a breath of fresh air. I applaud them for encouraging girls to think constructively and for providing a gateway to STEM careers for the next generation of women.

According to the Department of Commerce, the top 10 bachelor’s degrees with the highest median incomes are all in STEM fields, and the Brookings Institution reports that 20% of U.S. jobs require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field. The outlook is bright for the women who enter these flourishing but male-dominated fields. Although they represent just 24% of the STEM workforce, women earn on average 33% more when they work in these high-growth fields versus non-STEM fields. And the wage gap between men and women in STEM jobs is smaller than in other fields.

Increasing the presence of women in STEM fields depends on innovators like Debbie Sterling who are working to shatter gender norms and inspire young girls; the support of parents whose daughters want the same opportunities their fathers and brothers have long enjoyed; the encouragement of educators and counselors at every grade level; and, most important, the drive and audacity of girls and women who understand that brains are beautiful and geek is chic.

Are you a girl considering pursuing a career in a STEM field? If so, what obstacles have you faced, and what or who has been most encouraging?

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engineering GoldieBlox science stanford STEM women

About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie Darlet and CollegeXpress. Stephanie holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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