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SXSW: Encouraging Girls To Pursue Careers In Tech

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In less than a month I will become a father. After last year’s SXSW, I wrote two pieces of advice to a hypothetical daughter, but this time around everything has become more real. My wife and I don’t know the gender of our child, and while I love a good surprise, we’ve had a devil of a time picking out nursery colors. Not knowing whether I’ll have a son or daughter has me particularly in tune with gender and parenting issues in the technology field.

While many people were interested in hearing Edward Snowden or Michael Dell speak, I had two particular panels circled in my schedule—Hacking Princess Culture: Girls, Games & Science and Leaning Out: How Online Dads Raise Kids Offline. Assuming I will have a daughter—which I will now do for this article—I not only want to be a good dad, but ensure that she is not biased against STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects and that those subjects are not biased against her.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

At Rackspace, we’re working to change the bias in the industry and make careers in technology more inviting for women. We’ve all heard the statistics that men in engineering professions grossly outnumber women—in fact only 13 percent of engineers are women. The false truth that “math and science is for boys” is reinforced by the shows, games and toys that children play with. In Hacking Princesses, the panel challenged these assumptions head on.

Lindsey Shepard, vice president of sales for GoldieBlox, said that her goal is to disrupt the “pink aisle” at toy stores. GoldieBlox, which came into the public eye late last year with its Rube Goldberg machine video, creates toys to inspire the next generation of female engineers and innovators. While she doesn’t have a problem with children playing dress up or the color pink, Shepard does feel that the industry should give girls more options. In particular, offer girls toys that promote STEM principles. “We want to put a tool belt on every princess,” Shepard said.

Yet when GoldieBlox tried to go to market with its engineering toys for girls, the company was met with pushback. “In talking with people in industry, we heard one thing over and over. ‘You can’t fight nature. Girls don’t like to build. It’s just more natural for boys.’ We think that is not true,” Shepard said. The market agreed—GoldieBlox sold $1 million worth of toys in just four days on Kickstarter.

While I believe that I should not force my child into going in a particular field, I do agree with Shepard that she be given several options. In the panel I picked up a couple of hacks that I plan on using to help deal with gender bias:

  • Encourage my child to play analogue games that involve building and logic.
  • Similar to how we give feedback of “What a great artist you are!” when a child draws a picture, say “What an amazing engineer you are!” when she builds something.
  • Never use the word “bossy” to casually describe a girl leading a group as it has a negative connotation—how often do you hear a boy called bossy?
  • Present my daughter role models and examples of women succeeding in STEM fields—as Geena Davis says, “If she can see it, she can be it.”

Online Dad to Offline Kids

In the Leaning Out Panel, four different technologists and writers discussed raising children from the male point of view. While the panel touched on the different expectations around men and women raising children, I was more interested in how some of these highly successful people raised their kids. One topic that was discussed at length was screen time.

Many hours out of the day, I’m in front of a screen—whether it be a computer monitor or smartphone (and the occasional sports game on TV). While my online behavior is borderline addictive, I understand the value of existing and being a part of the physical world. I identified with Mat Honan, senior writer at Wired, who believes that screen time is such a hot issue because of our own actions.

“I find my own behavior with devices so troubling. It’s repulsive, it’s terrible, it’s awful. I ignore everybody who I care about to look at people I don’t care about and what they are saying,” Honan said.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that all screen time should be avoided for infants under the age of two, there is a lot of ambiguity as to what to do after that age. “The thing about kids is that it is really hard to run A/B experiments on them,” Michael Sippey, advisor to Twitter, said.

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, said that screen time has a bad rep because we tend to bucket together all types screen time and make time spent on each screen equal. Is 30 minutes playing an addictive game, such as Diner Dash, the same as 30 minutes on the interactive programming language Scratch? In the same way that cookies are different from vegetables, I would argue that the screen time for these activities is vastly different. I would much rather my daughter spend time with something productive than something mindless.

Looking Towards the Future

While SXSW may be the place to go for new technologies and innovations, I found these panels incredibly helpful to launch me on the journey to parenthood. I know that my wife and I will find our own style and perspective, but it was nice to hear from some of these folks in the technology industry. Daughter or son, I am excited to introduce them to some of my passions and to discover the path they forge on their own.

*Image via Jennifer Oxley of 9ate7 Productions

About the Author

This is a post written and contributed by Garrett Heath.

Garrett Heath is a Racker who works in Rackspace Marketing and has had experience as a technical project manager in the Cloud. He enjoys writing about how the cloud is spurring innovation for startups, small businesses and enterprises. You can read his personal blog for where he likes to eat in San Antonio.


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2 Comments

I always find it interesting to read articles on this topic, since my sister S and I ended up with STEM degrees in the 90s as did my cousin (mine BS Comp Sci from Lehigh; S holds dual BS degrees from Rutgers in Comp Sci and Chem E; Dr. K has a PhD in Limnology from UWisc). We were all fairly smart public school kids who happened to be interested science. I don’t remember there being some big initiative. We were raised in a family where science/engineerig was just accepted as cool. I think this may have been a byproduct of our grandparents raising 4 boys who were “into” electronics and cars. I don’t think it occurred to any of them to raise the next generation (4 girls, 1 boy) any differently. My niece and nephew are being raised in the same tradition.

Based on all that, here is my advice to you… just let your munchkin see science in action. Don’t put it on a pedestal; don’t make it special.

avatar M. L. Cottingham on March 14, 2014 | Reply

M. L. thanks for sharing! I think that this experience is echoed in other’s experiences as well (including my family’s – I have MS in IE and brother MS in EE). However, I definitely feel that there is most certainly a statistical bias towards girls pursuing STEM subjects.

I definitely agree with you about not holding Science on a pedestal, and my natural inclination towards science and technology will mean that my child will be exposed to it, regardless of the gender. The power of something like GoldieBlox and other building/engineering toys targeted towards girls is that they help to give more exposure to math/science in situations where parents may not be as inclined to promote STEM subjects.

avatar Garrett H on March 14, 2014

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