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Computer engineer Barbie may have been an own goal, but we must find ways to encourage girls into STEM, says John Bolton...
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There have been redoubled efforts to promote STEM to girls in recent years. In 2013, toy manufacturer Mattel chose to tackle the problem head-on, by releasing a computer engineer Barbie.
The doll was inoffensive enough, with geometric glasses, a Bluetooth headset and a binary code form-fitting T-shirt.
Where they went wrong was in the accompanying book, in which Barbie works on designs for a video game, rather than actually coding it (for that, she says, she’ll need a boy’s help). The book was unceremoniously pulled a while later, never to be seen again.
In fairness, the situation is so dire that any attempt at change has got to be a good thing. A 2017 study found girls as young as six were already more likely to associate high-intellectual ability with boys rather than girls.
Other studies have found it is a lack of confidence – not ability – that discourages women from STEM subjects.
The result? Women make up less than 15% of the UK STEM workforce. The shortage of girls in STEM is not, in my experience, due to a lack of interest. I believe it’s down to a scarcity of encouragement and access.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, my understanding of gender identity came down to this: He-Man for boys, She-Ra for girls. Not much has changed. Toy cars are drones, Barbie is an astronaut and skateboards hover, but the same separation remains.
However, happily, we’re seeing an increasing range of high-tech toys that challenge the old gender boundaries.
Recent years have seen a rise in robotic toys that focus on getting children interested in coding at a younger age: the ‘Code-a-Pillar’ is aimed at children as young as three.
Many of these toys are gender-neutral. They take all manner of forms, from interconnected tiles and cubes that children pieces together like fragments of code, to motorised balls like Sphero, which can be programmed along user-defined paths.
A range like SmartGurlz (billed as coding robots for girls) cleverly demonstrates that promoting tech to young girls can be done without compromising on the tech part.
Toys like these are also great springboards to the kind of block-based coding like Scratch that many primary schools already use.
As well as appropriate resources, young children (not just girls) need positive female role models.
I’ve seen genuine looks of awe in the classroom when talking about mathematician Ada Lovelace, but for children who are too young to appreciate Lovelace’s genius and spirit, we have to capture their imaginations elsewhere. And it seems Barbie did teach us something, after all.
Consider the book Hello Ruby, brainchild of programmer-turned-children’s author, Linda Liukas. Ruby’s superpower is that she can ‘imagine impossible things’, and her favourite word is ‘why?’.
The book introduces programming concepts without the need for a computer, in a way that’s accessible for even very young children.
Even more recently, we got Little Miss Inventor. In the Mr Men/Little Miss universe, role models for young girls are about as frequently salubrious (Little Misses Brilliant and Brainy) as they are dubious (Little Misses Bossy and Princess).
Little Miss Inventor, however, is a paradigm of resourcefulness and creativity, using her intellect to improve her own life and to help those around her. That, after all, is what STEM is about: coming together and improving the human experience.
We too must be role models, and strive to change the way girls view their own abilities. They need the self-efficacy to succeed, so make sure women in STEM are visible. Show them what their forebears have accomplished.
For example, if you’re doing a project on space, make sure you talk about computer scientist Margaret Hamilton just as much as you talk about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Without her, the moon landing may never have happened. Also consider setting up an after-school or lunchtime club for STEM activities. Code Club, a nationwide scheme, is a useful model with plenty of free resources.
And get the boys involved too. You might be surprised by the extent to which they’re on the same side. For me, Barbie’s brief foray into computer engineering wasn’t wasted.
When discussing women like Ada Lovelace and computer scientist Grace Hopper in the classroom, I’ve found describing Barbie’s book to be equally effective: particularly when I get to the bit about her needing a boy’s help to make her designs into a real game. The loudest gasps always come from the boys!
John Bolton is an education writer with a passion for promoting online safety and increasing girls’ participation in computer science. Find him on his website at john-bolton.com and follow him on Twitter at @boltonwriter.
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