Women in STEM (and toys)

I found this recent post/chart over at Economix rather disconcerting.  While there’s been great progress in the percentage of women in the STEM fields, it is flattened out, and even regressed in many cases:

Source:

I think it is a good thing for women and for our society to get more women into engineering, computers, etc.  I’m pretty sure, though, that the solution is not femininized building toys for little girls.  This post at the Atlantic makes that point rather sharply:

A Stanford Engineer Figured Out A Real Reason Fewer Women Code,” one headline read.

Did she?!

This Awesome Ad, Set to the Beastie Boys, Is How to Get Girls to Become Engineers,” another promised.

Is it?!

I am so excited for the study that tracks the girls who: Use this toy exclusively, avoid all heteronormative outside influences, somehow survive high school as proud math-lovers, and then go on to pick a college major. [emphasis mine]  That will surely prove its effectiveness…

At the same time, educational construction toys aimed at girls have been around for decades. There are pink Tinker toyspink Lincoln Logs, and pink Legos. I had cases full of gender-neutral K’NEXas a kid, and here I am in the humanities like a stereotypical female. I am not sure why. Perhaps at some point I reasoned, rightly or wrongly, that making a roller-coaster out of plastic widgets on a Saturday afternoon was not the same as spending your life solving complex engineering problems…

At the same time, educational construction toys aimed at girls have been around for decades. There are pink Tinker toyspink Lincoln Logs, and pink Legos. I had cases full of gender-neutral K’NEXas a kid, and here I am in the humanities like a stereotypical female. I am not sure why. Perhaps at some point I reasoned, rightly or wrongly, that making a roller-coaster out of plastic widgets on a Saturday afternoon was not the same as spending your life solving complex engineering problems…

The STEM gender imbalance is a decades-long, thorny problem, and an important one to work on. But it doesn’t help us if we herald every new contraption as “inspiring girls to become builders.”

UPDATE: Katy Waldman thinks the ad for this toy “is how to get girls to become engineers.”  I think that 1) the ad is awesome and 2) Waldman is hopelessly naive.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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