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Designing Tech That Engages Girls (and Boys) — Hint: It’s Not About Pink!

Monday, November 7, 2016

You don’t need to spend much time in a computer science department or a technology company to realize that there’s a gender imbalance. Women make up only 18% of CS majors in the US, and that percentage has been declining over the last 30 years. These trends are especially concerning because technology is only going to become more and more prevalent our lives. CS is the highest paid college degree, and programming jobs are growing at twice the national average.

Why the gender gap in computer science exists

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, girls and boys are equally interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers in elementary school. However, by 8th grade boys are twice as likely to be interested in STEM than girls are. This gender discrepancy doesn’t have to do with ability — there are no differences in standardized math performance from elementary school through college.

Societal perceptions tend to steer men and women in different career directions. In one study, when second graders were asked to draw a computer scientist, most of them drew a man in a white lab coat and glasses. Studies show that both women and men perceive men as being more naturally inclined towards the field. In fact, women express less confidence and rate their ability as lower than men even when actual achievement levels are similar.

What Wonder Workshop has done to change the ratio

There are many recent initiatives that aim to change the ratio in computer science: STEM camps for girls, engineering toys designed for girls, and outreach programs for high schoolers. Notably, Carnegie Mellon University has made great inroads in changing the ratio in their computer science department.

In 1995 Allan Fisher, the Associate Dean of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, realized there was a gender ratio problem. In fact there were more people named “Dave” than women in the department. In 5 short years, he and Jane Margolis were able to increase the percentage of women in computer science from 7% to 42%.

The changes they made not only attracted more women to computer science but also made the culture of the department more inclusive for everyone.

Introducing girls to technology early

Studies by the Girl Scout Research Institute show that early encouragement is a driving factor for girls to take computer science classes — more than confidence or perceptions of ability. 75% of girls surveyed said that having a parent or family member in the computing field was a reason for choosing to take programming courses. Many of the girls looked back fondly on the opportunities they had at a young age to be introduced to technology.

When starting Wonder Workshop, our goal was to make computer programming accessible and fun for children, both boys and girls, as young as 5 years old. We want to empower children to become creators of technology at a young age so they can develop a love for computing and desire to learn more throughout their lives. We created a physical robot paired with a visual programming interface on a tablet device because abstract, syntax-based computer programming languages are difficult for young children to grasp.

Barbara Ericson from Georgia Tech has done studies that show robots are disproportionately more interesting for boys than for girls. Knowing that girls tend to lose interest in STEM around middle school, it was especially important for us to make sure the product was engaging for girls. We did extensive user testing with children of both genders, assessing relative engagement levels with each iteration of our product design.

The robots have friendly dispositions and bright, optimistic colors. The eye of the robots show emotions and feelings, which help children relate to them as friends or pets. One design decision we made as a result of user testing with girls was to hide the wheels on the robot. Girls overwhelmingly associated previous versions of the robots as being a “boy’s toy” because they had wheels. But once we hid the wheels, they saw the robot as more of a creature or friend and found it much more relatable.

As we are developing curriculum to introduce computational thinking concepts, we are focusing on storytelling, music, games, and other mediums that are appealing to both girls and boys. “Pinking” of the curriculum or creating toys that appeal to girls (and not boys) only emphasizes the difference in gender and further isolates girls. We believe that creating hands-on learning tools that are equally appealing to both boys and girls is the best way to introduce girls to computer science as a field.

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