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Girls & STEM: How apps can narrow the gender gap

Raul Gutierrez, founder of children's app creator Tinybop, discusses the importance of inclusivity in apps

Posted by Hannah Vickers | June 08, 2017 | Secondary

In a world where we all carry supercomputers in our pockets and virtually every profession is touched by science and technology, STEM-literate communities are communities in charge of their own destinies. Technology affects our art, our politics, even our love lives. But when we understand the foundations of our hyper-connected modern world, we have a bit of agency over it.

As important as it is for us adults to continue to broaden our knowledge of STEM, it’s even more vital for our children. Most of our children’s jobs haven’t been imagined yet and many of tomorrow’s best careers will be STEM-related. It’s our collective duty to make sure that all kids — of all genders and backgrounds — are prepared for this future. But it’s going to take some work.

Many countries—notably the US, UK, India, and China—have prioritised STEM education. While we’re making great progress in introducing these concepts early, there are still major gaps. Interest in STEM careers amongst girls falls off as they approach college, men take the majority of spots in top science and engineering schools and use their degrees to take the lion’s share of science and engineering jobs — but not across the board. In medicine, clinical science and biology women are well represented; in some fields, like nursing, the ratio is skewed in the opposite direction. But in many major computer and engineering fields, the roughly 1:3 graduation ratio of women to men is reflected in the job force. 

If we’re going to change things, STEM education must start early and we must look at the culture around STEM

Our company, Tinybop, is a rare tech company; since our earliest days, the majority of our team has been female. In most cases, the gender gap is keenly visible in tech companies and science labs, where male to female ratios are skewed. Talk to recruiters and they will tell you the problem starts with the pipeline. While women are graduating at a much higher rate than in the past, science, engineering, and tech degrees are still earned more often by men. There’s no easy fix; this is a generational problem. But if we’re going to change things, STEM education must start early and we must look at the culture around STEM. At its core, STEM is about creative problem solving, about making things, and about using tools. What stories are we telling girls about women doing these things? Are we giving girls construction toys? Are ccwe teaching them to code? Are we praising them for achievement in science? Are we encouraging them to think about careers in science?

As a boy growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was interested in science, engineering, and computers; it was unusual to see girls participating in computer labs and at science fairs. The atmosphere was not particularly welcoming to girls and virtually all my role models were male. Likewise, tech and science toy marketing at the time was heavily skewed towards boys. Consider the messages of these vintage Atari ads, or this model rocket ad (below).

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 4.06.04 PM.png

Though we are creating new technology at Tinybop, our inspirations are often classic books and games. We collect children’s science books in our office library and in many eras we see gender bias everywhere. We recently purchased an old children’s encyclopedia about the sea, produced by Jacques Cousteau, and were surprised to find that in hundreds of pictures of heroic scientists and explorers we couldn’t find a single image of a woman.

In making apps for kids we have to ask ourselves not only about these more obvious examples of bias, but also our own biases. Where are our blinders? Are there kids we’re excluding because of what we represent? This is a good starting point whether designing an app or a classroom lesson, and it’s made easier by having a diverse group of women at the table in every step of our decision-making processes.  

Generally, here in Brooklyn, we’ve made tremendous progress, compared to those earlier days. I recently attended a robotics competition and was pleasantly surprised to see that girls made up almost 50% of the roster; and there were many all-girl teams. Even better was that kids across the economic spectrum were represented. But this is still particular to our corner of the world and not the norm.

While traditional toy companies are still bound by pink and blue aisles, makers of tech toys and apps are pushing for gender equality in STEM

While traditional toy companies are still bound by pink and blue aisles, makers of tech toys and apps are pushing for gender equality in STEM. Companies like LittleBits are creating techie construction toys built to appeal to all kids.

While in the past, a construction kit might feature boys on the packaging, LittleBits makes sure its advertising and design is balanced to appeal to all genders. Goldiblox takes the gendered vocabulary of Barbie and subverts it by creating pink and purple construction kits specifically designed to appeal to girls. Hopscotch was founded by two women, initially to teach girls programming. But it’s morphed into a network where all kids express themselves through code, with the mission to make coding accessible to all. Media is also catching up. Dora the Explorer is an animated heroine who is unabashedly keen on discovery. Movies like Hidden Figures and books like Rosie Revere, Engineer provide role models not just for girls, but for parents and boys as well. Each of these images chips away at stereotypes and changes the way children see possibility for themselves.

In our apps, we broaden the stories and characters kids are exposed to by letting them create their own. For example, one of our apps, The Infinite Arcade, gives kids the power to make their own video games. In the app kids must grapple with symbolic thinking, game design, and logic as they build narratives in their games. It was important to us that kids create their own characters and tell their own stories. We see creative problem-solving as a first step for kids on their way to STEM careers. Our hope is that by giving kids lots of options to represent themselves, we remove a barrier to entry. We make also make apps that cover foundational science subjects such as The Human Body, Space, and Simple Machines. Our goal with our apps is to give all kids  — when testing our apps, we look for gender bias and try to mitigate it through design — basic science literacy, which we think is more important than any specific skill.

By getting kids excited about STEM early on, we give them valuable tools to help them navigate the future and solve problems that affect their lives

By getting kids excited about STEM early on, we give them valuable tools to help them navigate the future and solve problems that affect their lives. We believe the essential skills are not connected to specific applications, but to big ideas. How do we teach kids to solve problems, tell stories, or understand the fundamental principles of nature? The journey to explore these ideas should not be limited by gender stereotypes embedded in the teaching. It’s easy to think that just by putting more focus on STEM that we’re doing enough, but our current culture around STEM leaves women and kids behind on the other side of the digital divide. By inspiring girls to get involved in STEM at a young age—through engaged learning, through media role models, and through tech that gives them agency—we’re betting on our collective future.

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