Last week, Pamela Ribon wrote about Barbie’s disastrous foray into computer science in the book, I Can Be… A Computer Engineer! Much to Ribon’s dismay, the book was not as much about how great Barbie was at computer engineering as it was an exercise in reemphasizing existing sexist stereotypes about women who code.
Ribon’s critique goes page by page, pointing out everything from the frustrating (Barbie can’t fix her computer virus problem without the help of two of her guy friends, Steven and Brian) to the downright ridiculous (after giving her sister’s computer the virus attacking her own and jeopardizing Skipper’s homework and music collection, Skipper decides they should have a fun pillow fight). Not only does the book fail to make Barbie an active participant in her own career path, but it also follows a path all too familiar to women who code.
- Steven and Brian are nice guys, I’m sure. But Steven and Brian are also everything frustrating about the tech industry. Steven and Brian represent the tech industry assumption that only men make meaningful contributions. Men fix this, men drive this and men take control to finish this. Steven and Brian don’t value design as much as code. Steven and Brian represent every time I was talked over and interrupted — every time I didn’t post a code solution in a forum because I didn’t want to spend the next 72 years defending it. Steven and Brian make more money than I do for doing the same thing. And at the same time, Steven and Brian are nice guys.
But this brings us to a real problem: these sexist expectations are much more readily available to girls and young women than the alternative. Despite a push for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs in schools throughout the country and our state, there is still a gap between the number of openings for STEM jobs and the number of people who have a background in these areas. What’s more, the gender gap in those pursuing an education or career in STEM fields continues to persist.
In a recent report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, Generation Stem, the Institute found that 74% of teen girls were interested in STEM fields. The study also found that confidence in their abilities made girls much more likely to believe that they could succeed in STEM fields, despite social expectations along gendered lines, and that a solid support system and exposure to STEM instruction were key to this confidence.
A pre-teen girl from Austin, Texas was interviewed as a part of the study. She sees STEM as an exciting opportunity:
- I love science and I like seeing how things work. I think I did a lot of engineering on my own when I was little. I love to take things apart and see if I can get them back together. I always try to figure out how things work.
The passion for STEM among young girls exists, and it’s up to everyone to encourage it. Access to STEM programs in school is key. In 2005, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) started the T-STEM Initiative. This brings a blueprint for STEM education to schools across the state, totaling 91 campuses so far.
Access to quality programs is a central part of encouraging girls to pursue and excel in STEM field, but that isn’t all they need. We have to push back against the sexist assumptions that create these gender gaps in the first place, whether we see them in children’s books or hear them being reiterated by our friends. It is also up to us to support and shine a light on organizations, like Girls Who Code, that have committed themselves to providing resources and education to girls across the country to give them the confidence to say, “I can be a computer engineer!” and stick to it.