Can Barbie Fans Grow up to Be Engineers, Too?

In a followup to yesterday being Ada Lovelace Day we’ve noted that the disparity between the genders in the STEM fields is old news. Even here at UC Davis where more women earn undergrad degrees than men (55% vs. 45%), reflecting the national trend, many of the math and science classrooms have a lopsided gender divide.

A recent article on HuffPo by Rajal Pitroda asked whether the toys we give our daughters and nieces influenced their eventual career goals:

The overwhelming response from these sessions was that [10-year old girls in London] don’t see any applicability of STEM subjects to their lives – they don’t know when they will ever need to use a fraction, how learning about chemical compounds will contribute to their careers or if knowing anything beyond email, Facebook and Word on a computer will be required of them in their lives. In contrast, they do see utility to subjects like English and History – they relate to words and stories because they use them every day, they connect to others through them, and they play with and learn from them.

To play out the stereotype, boys who play with Legos become engineers and contractors and girls who play with Barbies (or Breyer horses, in my case) and make up imaginary stories about them become writers. Pitroda goes on to suggest a way of blending the best of both imaginary worlds.

Drawing this connection between STEM skills and the toys, games and media that we expose girls to provides an opportunity to combine new learning with existing skills that girls find fun and engaging. How, for example, can we integrate storytelling with programming, to create and build a product, story or game that girls relate to and are excited about, and that offers them insight into applications of STEM?

Designing a new generation of toys, games and media is not about creating an army of girls who grow up to be physicists and programmers, although this could be a welcome by-product. The goal, instead, could be to build a critical mass of girls who believe that they can do anything they want, and that feel knowledgeable, equipped and confident to choose what they want from the possibilities presented before them, both in the classroom and in the toy aisle.

What did you play with as a kid, and did it influence your college major?