Girls Need Role Models
In every part of their lives
I often get asked how we are going to fix the gender inequality problem in tech. This is a huge, complicated, multi-faceted problem. That needs to be worked on from many sides to effect change. However, I do believe there is one thing we can do that might just get us over the tipping point.
In every single part of girl’s lives.
This is what I have worked hard to do for my daughter and I think it is working. Time will tell if I am right, but there are glimmers of hope and because of this I want to share my approach, in case, just maybe, this is the thing that tips the balance.
The STEM Cliff
My daughter is approaching the edge of the STEM Cliff. She is starting to enter the time in a girl’s life when how she is perceived by her peers becomes the most important thing in her world. This is also the time when girls begin to form their identity as women. It is important to girls at this age to feel liked and part of a group. It becomes can be more important to adopt an identity that is perceived as “female” than to follow their own interests. Just as this social shift is happening we are also seeing girls move away from STEM subjects.
The STEM cliff, shown above, indicates that girls move away from STEM subjects between the ages of 12 and 17. One conjecture is that computing and more widely STEM subjects are viewed as uncool, or not part of female identity and seen as a major contributing factor to them choosing to move away from STEM subjects.
So how do we change this?
Make computing and STEM subjects cool.
Easy right?! We can just change what is cool for pre-teens and teens easily. As a 30-something mom, I am sure that should be simple.
What can we do?
We can give them as many role models as possible so that they can see a path forward. We can make it the norm to see women succeeding in STEM fields and Leadership positions. This may not make it cool, but it will take away some of the stigma. They won’t be the first or only girl to go a different path. The more girls that take the STEM/Leadership path, the more accepted it will become. Over time, if enough choose those paths, it could actually become the cool thing to do.
Let’s get started and deluge girls with STEM Role Models!
Historical Roles Models
There have been many amazing women in STEM and leadership roles over time. However, in our patriarchal society, they have been ignored, and passed over; the Great Men of History are privileged over female figures.
It is critical for girls to see that history includes people they identify with, that history is full of strong, smart, successful, women, who have done what they want to do.
The recent success of Hidden Figures, telling the overlooked story of the black women who made the Moon landing possible through their work as mathematicians and pioneering computer scientists, is a great example of what it looks like when girls have the opportunity to share in the stories of historical role models. We need so much more like this movie.
This is why I love the “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” book series. My daughter devoured the 100 stories of different women in a single weekend. She was fascinated with the stories. She loved them so much she brought them with her to the cottage this summer. It quickly became the go to book for bedtime for not only her, but my 9 year old nephew and 7 year old niece. The three of them even read the book out loud to each other on rainy days. It is a great book to show girls and boys the amazing women of history.
It is also important to note that the Rebel Girls series have been the most funded books in the history of Kickstarter! To me, this shows how starved women and girls have been of role models, and the power they have to inspire our girls.
Fictional Role Models
Having strong positive female role models in the books, movies, and TV shows our daughters see normalizes the idea that women can be leaders, fighters, scientists, and so much more. The good news is Hollywood is starting to see the power, and financial benefit, of strong female leads.
In the last two years we have seen two new Star Wars movies with female leads, an all female crew in Ghostbusters and, of course, Wonder Woman. These movies have been huge hits in the theater!
My favorite is the women of Ghostbusters, they are funny, smart women, who do science for fun and catch ghosts. When my daughter suggested she wanted a Ghostbusters birthday party I got right on that!
Family Role Models
Do your girls and boys know what the women in their families have accomplished? What their great-grandmothers did? How powerful would it be for them to know their stories? To see the strength, resilience, and ingenuity of the women in their family?
This summer, I had an epiphany. If my daughter loved the stories of historical women who did amazing things, how much would she love the stories of the women in her family. So this summer, we created her own book of rebel stories of the women in her family.
In the book are the stories of every women she is related to going back to her great-grandmothers. At the end of the book I wrote her story. Here are a few lines from the end of her story.
This girl is very smart and works very hard to do both the things she loves, mathematics, and things that challenge her, new piano songs. The harder she works at different skills the better she gets at them.
Her bright mind, love of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics along with hard work will take her anywhere her heart dreams to go.
The world is anxiously awaiting what this rebel girl will accomplish in her lifetime.
Integrating Role Models into Daily Life
It isn’t enough for our daughters to be exposed to role models occasionally. It needs to become part of their daily life so that it becomes the norm to see women as leaders, women in STEM fields and women making their dreams come true.
This is where books and toys come in. It is great when we can just go ahead and buy pre-made toys so that their role models can be brought to life by their imaginations when they play or read. We have a lot of Star Wars and superhero Lego and books in our house that my daughter plays with and reads all the time.
Sometimes though, their role model can’t be bought in a store. A few years ago I bought my daughter a Marie Curie doll as part of a set of dolls from the Miss Possible series.
She was really excited to find out that she would also be getting a Bessie Coleman and an Ada Lovelace! She learned all about them and waited. Going to the mailbox constantly. When I broke it to her that the company had closed down and the dolls weren’t coming she was heart broken.
So my Mom and I hatched a plan. I would buy a black doll and my mom would knit an aviators outfit and we would give my daughter Bessie Coleman for Christmas. My daughter loved it. Later Christmas day she had already build a cardboard box airplane for Bessie to fly in. Her and my niece were pretending to be airplane pilots.
She has already started asking for Ada and she might just be in luck this Christmas. Just because the stores don’t have the toy you need, doesn’t mean you need to give up on the idea.
Role Models for Girls
It is so important that girls are able to see examples of who they can be. More than Being The Change we want to see in the world — as individuals, we need to work together as a society to Model The Change for girls, in a way that shows girls it’s possible, it’s acceptable, and it’s maybe even cool to be someone who is excited and passionate about STEM.
Seeing example of ourselves in the world around us is so very important and extends beyond STEM. I recently read a story of a local mom who received an anonymous donation of dolls with hijabs.
This is such an inspiring story of inclusion and thoughtful consideration of the power of role models for girls. It is encouraging to see a growing trend of this kind of work to support girls.
I hope you’re able to be part of this exciting work and I’d love to hear your stories about your experience with role models for girls in the comments below.