Last fall, Mattel published a children’s book titled Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. “At breakfast one morning, Barbie is already hard at work on her laptop,” it begins innocuously. But when a virus crashes her computer, Barbie is told she’s out of her league, and two male friends step in to save the day.
Sharp critiques circled the Internet, prompting the company to pull the book off Amazon and issue an apology. Ludicrous as the plot may have been, Mattel isn’t alone in underrepresenting the capabilities of young women. From preschool on, women are consistently told—and implicitly shown in daily life, from what toys they are given to play with to how lessons are taught in school—that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in math and science.
Because science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (known collectively as STEM) are fieldscrucial to the U.S. economy—in the next decade, STEM-related jobs are expected to grow eight-fold, to a total of 9 million—discouraging half of our workforce seems like a bad idea.
It’s easy to see why Mattel sold Barbie out as a programmer. Even when universities and lip service is paid to women in STEM, the barriers to entry remain high. Colleges are unlikely to encourage young women to study science or math. A Yale study from 2012 found science professors actually think of female students as less competent. (And the results weren’t subtle: Researchers found that professors judged materials submitted under a female name more harshly then identical materials handed in under a male name—Mattel wasn’t that far off.) After college, women experience similar prejudice entering the workforce, as a quick glance at any Silicon Valley’s org chart confirms. When they do land a job, they typically get paid less than a male colleague holding the same position.
Telling little girls they’re bad at math isn’t just bad for women: The bias toward men is actually holding back progress in science and technology. In the lab, studies often use men as test subjects because their hormone levels vary less over time. But this limits the scope of what can be discovered, and can even be actively harmful. When a group of (mostly male) engineers designed the first airbags for cars, for example, they scaled the impact for adult male bodies.
The flaw was fixed in later generations of airbags, but not before women and children died avoidable deaths. In the tech world, mounting evidence suggests different types of startups would be funded if women were the angel investors or CEOs.. Entrepreneur Stella Ma recently told Businessweek that when she was trying to start a company, she was told by male investors, “There’s no way women like this could grow a company fast enough.” Five years later, her start-up Little Passports has brought in $5 million. But imagine what might happen if pretend princesses were encouraged to think about the logistical side of running a kingdom.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, that, in fact, might be the fix. Just publishing hiring statistics doesn’t change the implicit biases that have created this imbalance. The solution, Harvard biology professor Ruth Hubbard wrote in a great but overlooked book back in the 1990s, was simple. She argued that parents—both mothers and fathers—teach their children to discount the science in stereotypical women’s work. Instead of discouraging girls from playing with sewing machines, parents should emphasize the mathematics a child needs to learn in order to line up seams. Or the fractions involved in baking cookies.
The assumption that “homemaking” and “girl’s games” automatically preclude science needs to change. Because in addition to hammering away at institutional gatekeepers, real change will only come from making science and technology accessible to young women’s lives—and valuing its applications, wherever they may come.
So if your little girl wants to play with an Easy Bake Oven, let her. And make sure to tell her how she can cook up some great experiments while she’s at it.