While boys still outnumber engineering-focused girls in STEM, the percentage of female engineers has increased since the 1990s. How can teachers help girls in STEM pursue engineering?
Debbie Sterling, inventor of GoldieBlox has a lot to say regarding girls in STEM. As a candidate in Stanford University’s Mechanical Engineering/Product Design program, the small number of women pursuing the degree inspired Sterling to develop an erector-set line for girls in STEM to cultivate engineering interest. Through storylines based on the adventures of girls in STEM, including mechanical engineer GoldieBlox and her friends, such as the newest action figure – Ruby Rails, a chic, yet adventurous, software engineer, Sterling seeks to shatter the pink-hued glass ceiling.
Sterling spoke with STEM Jobs about women in engineering, changing the toy industry on her terms, encouraging girls in STEM, and shifting the ratio in this male-dominated field.
You did not consider an engineering career until a high school math teacher proposed the idea. How did this teacher inspire you to become a girl in STEM?
My high-school math teacher was always my favorite; she definitely played a big part in getting me to where I am today.
She pulled me aside one day to ask what I was planning to major in college, and she actually suggested that I consider engineering. I was too embarrassed to ask her at the time, but I had no idea what engineering was! Regardless, it seemed like something I would never be interested in. But I started my freshman year at Stanford with her voice stuck in my head: “You should try engineering.” So, I signed up for Mechanical Engineering 101 and I fell in love.
I was blown away by that class, it wasn’t at all what I pictured it to be. I thought we’d be working on engines or algorithms that I wouldn’t understand. Instead, we were building all kinds of cool contraptions; it was a mix of problem solving, math, and science, but it also required a lot of creativity. I didn’t realize how much art and design were involved in engineering.
What job did you quit to develop GoldieBlox? Did you face any obstacles while holding this job? How did you overcome these roadblocks?
I was the marketing director at a jewelry company. One of my favorite classes in college was actually a jewelry engineering class, so I figured maybe this was a good option. It was mechanical and creative, and I loved it. Since it was a small company, I also had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of running a business, so that was helpful for when I decided to go out on my own.
During your Ted Talks video – “Yesterday’s Frontiers Tomorrow’s Horizons” – not many attendees raised their hands when you asked how many of them pictured an engineer as someone who looks like you. Did you expect this response? Will this reaction to girls in STEM change in 10 years?
The response was not a surprise, especially after experiencing such a wide gender gap in college. I was one of only a handful of women in my engineering classes and I constantly compared myself to the guys in my major who all seemed so much smarter than me. I never felt good enough, or that I belonged.
I do hope that this will change in 10 years – I’m very optimistic, actually. The good news is that we have made a lot of progress, and we have the opportunity to do so much more to change the equation. We can change the way girls think about themselves – we can open up the world to them and make them realize they can do anything.
According to your website, the global percentage of female engineers is 14 percent. From which other countries do you receive the most requests? Is there a difference regarding how teachers in other countries groom girls in STEM for engineering compared with the approach used in the United States? What can we learn from them regarding how we teach girls in STEM?
We’ve had great success in Canada, the U.K., and Australia.
According to a recent research study of girls and boys taking the same science test around the world, the results showed that girls actually outperformed the boys, but not in the U.S. What this study (and many, many others like it) suggests is that there is no difference in intellectual ability of boys and girls. The problem isn’t nature after all. The problem is cultural. And in our culture, from a very young age, our kids are taught that building and engineering is a boys’ club.
When reflecting on the small group of female students in your Stanford University engineering program, you set out to begin “disrupting the pink aisle.” Regarding GoldieBlox, Upworthy once said, “Move over, Barbie. You’re obsolete.” What did the term “disrupting the pink aisle” and feedback such as “Move over, Barbie. You’re obsolete.” mean to you back then? Do they mean something different to you now that GoldieBlox is a success?
If you take a walk down most toy stores, any kid can see that building is for boys and dolls are for girls. The pink aisle – today, in 2015 – is still predominantly full of fashion dolls, princesses, tea sets, ironing boards – products and characters that tell girls beauty, above all, is what’s important.
My goal for GoldieBlox from the start was to invent a toy for girls that would introduce them to the joys of engineering at an early age – so feedback like that is incredibly validating. At the same time, we’re not trying to dictate what girls should play with; we just want them to recognize their options and limitless potential. As I always say, “There’s nothing wrong with being a princess, we just think girls can build their own castles too!”
After the chilly response to GoldieBlox by the tech accelerator program in Silicon Valley and at the New York Toy Fair, how did it feel to reach your own Kickstarter goal in only four days and succeed on your terms? What was your initial reaction to finally being, not only heard, but also embraced by the audience that mattered most – little girls around the world?
It was incredibly gratifying. After being told that construction toys for girls don’t sell and that my idea didn’t have any market demand, I just knew the traditional route wouldn’t work for me.
I spent nine months working full time on GoldieBlox when I launched our Kickstarter campaign. Our goal was $150,000, which seemed like a crazy amount of money at the time – but the response was absolutely amazing, it took only four days to reach our funding goal. We were getting tons of press coverage, and people seemed to be really inspired by the idea. I finally realized I wasn’t alone in wanting more for our girls.
What advice would you offer to teachers of young girls in STEM regarding how to promote interest in engineering during each of the following levels: grammar school, junior high, and high school? Is there any type of behavior that teachers should unlearn to cultivate interest in engineering among girls in STEM?
What I think is so important in this space is role models that girls can relate to. Engineering, math, technology, and science are currently male-dominated industries. We need to do a better job of highlighting the women in those fields and putting women role models in the spotlight for kids to grow up with, so it becomes the norm. As Sally Ride once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
It’s also really important to encourage girls to keep an open mind and give everything a try, and most importantly, not to give up if it’s hard. There’s no greater feeling like accomplishing something that seems nearly impossible.