By Matt Simon

HERE’S A DEPRESSING number for you: 12. Just 12 percent of engineers in the United States are women. In computing it’s a bit better, where women make up 26 percent of the workforce—but that number has actually fallen from 35 percent in 1990.

The United States has a serious problem with getting women into STEM jobs and keeping them there. Silicon Valley and other employers bear the most responsibility for that: Discrimination, both overt and subtle, works to keep women out of the workforce. But this society of ours also perpetuates gender stereotypes, which parents pass on to their kids. Like the one that says boys enjoy building things more than girls.

There’s no single solution to such a daunting problem, but here’s an unlikely one: robots. Not robots enforcing diversity in the workplace, not robots doing all the work and obviating the concept of gender entirely, but robots getting more girls interested in STEM. Specifically, robot kits for kids—simple yet powerful toys for teaching youngsters how to engineer and code.


Plenty of toys are targeted at getting kids interested in science and engineering, and many these days are gender specific. Roominate, for instance, is a building kit tailored for girls, while the Boolean Box teaches girls to code. “Sometimes there’s this idea that girls need special Legos, or it needs to be pink and purple for girls to get into it, and sometimes that rubs me the wrong way,” says Amanda Sullivan, who works in human development at Tufts University. “If the pink and purple colored tools is what’s going to engage that girl, then that’s great. But I think in general it would be great if there were more tools and books and things that were out there for all children.”

So Sullivan decided to test the effects of a specifically non-gendered robotics kit called Kibo. Kids program the rolling robot by stringing together blocks that denote specific commands. It isn’t marketed specifically to boys or girls using stereotypical markings of maleness or femaleness. It’s a blank slate.

Before playing with Kibo, boys were significantly more likelyto say they’d enjoy being an engineer than the girls did. But after, boys had about the same opinion, while girls were now equally as likely to express an engineering interest as the boys. (In a control group that did not play with Kibo, girls’ opinions did not significantly change.) “I think that robots in general are novel to young children, both boys and girls,” Sullivan says. “So aside from engaging girls specifically, I think robotics kits like Kibo bring an air of excitement and something new to the classroom that gets kids psyched and excited about learning.”

There’s a problem, though. While Sullivan’s research shows that a gender-neutral robotics kit can get girls interested in engineering, that doesn’t mean it will sell. “If you look at sales data, it clearly shows that they’re not being used by girls,” says Sharmi Albrechtsen, CEO and co-founder of SmartGurlz, which makes a programmable doll on a self-balancing scooter. “Even the ones that are considered gender-neutral, if you look at the sales data it clearly shows a bias, and it’s towards boys. That’s the reality of the situation.” Gender sells—at least when it’s the parents doing the buying.

Regardless, companies are designing a new generation of toys in deliberate ways. Take Wonder Workshop and its non-gendered robots Dash and Cue. As they were prototyping, they’d test their designs with boys and girls. “One of the things we heard a lot from girls was this isn’t quite their toy,” says Vikas Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop. “This is probably what their brother would play with.”

Why? Because they thought it looked like a car or truck. So the team covered up the wheels. “And all of a sudden girls wanted to play with it,” Gupta says. “Our takeaway from that in a big way was that every child brings their preconceived notions to play. So when they see something they map it back to something they’ve already seen.” Though not always. “What we do find actually, funnily enough,” says Albrechtsen of the SmartGurlz scooter doll, “is that a lot of boys actually end up edging in and wanting to play. So we have a lot of brothers who are also playing with the product.”

Whatever gets a child interested, it’s on parents and educators to make sure the spark stays alive. And maybe it’s the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly awesome, and increasingly inexpensive robots that can begin to transform the way America gets girls into science and tech. Short of becoming self aware and taking over the world, the machines certainly couldn’t hurt.

Careers for Women in Technology Companies Are a Global Challenge


CreditAshley Seil Smith

European women working in the technology field are very familiar with the concerns expressed by their counterparts in the United States — too few girls and young women studying science and technology in school, gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace.

But, they say, the problems play out in different ways.

“We don’t have a frat-boy culture, we have more of an old-boys culture,” said Anne-Marie Imafidon, co-founder of Stemettes, a British nonprofit aimed at encouraging girls to pursue science, engineering, math and technology. Class differences, she said, play a bigger role in making outsiders feel alienated in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but “the result is the same.”

Over the past year or so in the United States, one accusation of sexual harassment and gender bias in one high-profile company has barely died down before another pops up. Susan Fowler, an Uber employee, wrote a blog post in February about harassment and retaliation that landed like dynamite; after investigations and more revelations, Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, left the company.

At Google, a software engineer was fired after writing a memo that argued that biological differences — such as women experiencing higher levels of anxiety and less tolerance for stress — explained why there were fewer women in top engineering and leadership position at the company. And at the end of September, Dave McClue, the founder of the company 500 Start-ups, said he was stepping down after The New York Times reported he had made an advance to a woman who was applying for a job at his firm.

One of the biggest cases involved Ellen Pao, who sued her venture capital firm alleging gender discrimination and lost the case in 2015. She is back in the news with a book, “Reset,” about her experiences.

And, of course, there is the inevitable backlash. James Altizer, 52, an engineer at the chip maker Nvidia, declared in a recent Times articlethat “feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men.” He called the firing of some male employees in tech companies “a witch hunt,” and said there were a growing number of men across Silicon Valley and elsewhere who felt as he did.

While American companies are primarily the ones in the spotlight, they have a global reach, not just because of their size, but because of the ways their actions resonate around the world. And even if gender issues elsewhere don’t make headlines, women on both sides of the Atlantic point to similar problems — although political and cultural disparities create different challenges and opportunities.

For example, while being a working mother, especially in high-powered technology fields, can be difficult, the paid maternity leaves and state-subsidized child care available in many European countries make life simpler.

Anne-Marie Imafidon, far right, a founder of Stemettes, with young women during a break at a conference in Scotland. CreditRobert Ormerod for The New York Times

Karoli Hindriks, 34, of Estonia, started her first company when she was 16. At 19, she spoke before the European Parliament about young entrepreneurs. And she didn’t consider herself a feminist.

“I thought, if you’re good enough, you’ll get the position,” she said. Then, she was propositioned by a possible investor. Writing about the episode in her blog, she described it as “the most humiliating situation imaginable.” She also said that when she was applying for an accelerator program for the company she currently heads, Jobbatical, she was told she should leave the fact that she had a child off the application. (Jobbatical matches global companies and job-seekers in technology, business and creative fields.)

“I was very full of myself when younger,” she said. “It has been eye-opening.”

But one thing making her life easier is “that the state is supporting family so strongly,” Ms. Hindriks said. “We have 18 months’ paid paternity and maternity leave. Preschool costs nothing. Taking care of a child is not an issue.”

Geraldine Le Meur, 45, moved from Paris to San Francisco a decade ago to be, as she put it, “in the center of the jet engine. It was and is the place to be when you are in the digital and tech space.”

One the biggest cultural differences she found is how surprised people were that, as a mother of three, she opted to work full-time.

“It was almost shocking to people that I continue working rather than stay at home with the boys,” said Ms. Le Meur, who started the Refiners, a San Francisco-based seed fund program to help foreign tech start-ups go global. “It wouldn’t be the same in France; it wouldn’t be that surprising.” And she also attributes the differing attitudes to state-subsidized day care and to an earlier starting age for school – 3 years old rather than 5 in the United States.

“You know that the people taking care of your babies while you work are professionals,” she said. “I see friends here who have little kids who are super-conflicted. If they’re financially well-off, it doesn’t seem right not to take care of the kids yourself. My kids are the best part of my life, but not the only part.”

Shira Kaplan, 34, who moved with her husband from Israel to Zurich for his job, found that the message about combining motherhood and work was very different in Switzerland than in her native Israel. She served in the elite cybersecurity intelligence unit in the Israeli military, but when she became pregnant with her first child while working at a private Swiss bank, she said she was constantly asked: “ ‘Are you coming back? Are you coming back 100 percent?’ In the end, they restructured my team while I was on maternity leave and it was a very strong signal.”

She then started and now runs Cyverse, a firm that brings Israeli cybersecurity expertise to Europe. Yet, even as the industry is increasingly eager to show diversity by bringing on women — “we’re the new hot thing” — she still feels different, not just about being a woman, but a young woman, she said.


Taking part in mock interviews at a Stemettes conference in Scotland. The group, a British nonprofit, encourages girls to pursue careers in science, engineering, math and technology.CreditRobert Ormerod for The New York Times

In Israel, perhaps because military service is mandatory for women and men, there is a greater sense of equality, she said, and there are more women entrepreneurs in technology. In Switzerland, walking into a technology conference, “almost everyone one around you is a gray-haired male in a suit,” she said. “It’s difficult, because when doing business with someone, you look for something in common, and we’re asymmetrical — ‘I’m young, they’re old, I’m a woman, they’re male, I’m short they’re tall.’ ”

Ms. Imafidon, 28, agreed. “I’m young, a person of color, a woman and I talk like a person from East London — you could discriminate against me for a number of reasons.”

She said she hasn’t experienced much gender bias, probably because, she said, she is very confident and not especially perceptive about what other people think of her. At 20 she was one of the youngest people ever to be awarded a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science by the University of Oxford, and in 2013 the British Computer Society, a professional organization, named her its young information technology professional of the year.

But she is worried about the small number of young women entering the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM, and the messages they’re getting about women in technology.

Her concern led her to startStemettes, which offers workshops, classes and summer programs designed to expose all girls and young women to science, technology and engineering. For example, at a recent event, 60 girls ages 5 through 19 showed up to build their own apps.

The different educational systems in the United States and Britain mean that each has its own strengths and weaknesses when teaching STEM, she said; British schools, unlike schools in the United States, have a national curriculum; STEM teaching in the United States, on the other hand, “might be more patchy, but it can also be more creative.”

Vanessa Evers, a professor of computer science at the University of Twente in the Netherlands who was a visiting scholar at Stanford University and who worked for Boston Consulting Group in London, said the United States offers more women role models in technology and science than her country does. “In America, it is easier to find support,” said Prof. Evers, who specializes in human-computer interactions. “I had women mentors who were willing to allow me to be there to observe and come along to important meetings. I learned so much just from being there. It’s not so common here — there’s more of a class system, a sense that ‘you don’t crash the party.’”

She feels, she said, a “basic condescension” as a woman in tech. “I feel I have to convince them that I know the technology, and they’re surprised when I do.”

Prof. Evers has had her share of inappropriate remarks and experiences, she said. One time, a more senior male colleague was interested in whether she shaved her armpits and pulled at her shirt to take a look.


Geraldine Le Meur has three sons and a company, and she said people questioned her when she opted to work full time. CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

“Two years ago, I would never have talked about it; it’s not easy to do when you’re still in the running for senior positions,” she said. But over the past few years, she has been more outspoken.

“I wasn’t willing to show what I saw as my weak side before,” she said. “I want to display a persona at work that is super capable, but that is selfish.”

After all, as she and others said, it’s not just about filling the pipeline by encouraging women to enter STEM fields, but making sure that women who already in it are treated well and promoted.

Jean Bennington Sweeney, the chief sustainability officer and vice president of corporate social responsibility for 3M, is now based in Minnesota at the company headquarters. But she meets often with European counterparts and used to be based in Australia and Taiwan.

“What I see in Europe and the U.S. is lots of encouragement for girls in STEM. It’s not where it needs to be, but I do see more encouragement in schools and even in families,” she said. Through mentoring and tutoring, she does her part to try to get more young women to enter the STEM field.

In Asia, in general, “while things are improving, the bosses are still older men and may be less willing to accept” young women as engineers, Ms. Sweeney said. “It’s more like it was 20 to 30 years ago in the U.S.” And it is women with more financial means, she said, who can more easily break through the gender barrier.

In Singapore, more and more women are running successful tech companies or start-ups, said Jacqueline Poh, chief executive of theGovernment Technology Agency of Singapore, adding that “a significant proportion” of top executives in the country’s tech companies are women. Government initiatives have also focused on teaching coding and computer skills to students at all levels.

Nonetheless, she said, “I strongly believe that female representation in tech could definitely be higher. I think the general resistance could stem from preconceived notions that a career in tech would only revolve around programming.”

Ms. Sweeney said all women in all countries also have to move away from the idea that they “have to be super smart to be in science and engineering. It’s not just for the best and the brightest,” she said. “Boys and men assume that if they are 30 to 40 percent qualified, they’ll go for it. Girls and women feel they need to be 80 percent qualified to attempt it. We have to get past the idea that you need to be exceptional, not just good. Believe me, the men aren’t all exceptional.”

Could it be that the teaching profession isn’t pink enough?

US News & World Report

Two studies say more women would study math and science in college if there were more female math and science teachers in high school

Photo of Jill Barshay

Education by the Numbers

More girls might pursue science fields if they had more female teachers in middle and high school, two studies suggest (AP image of a middle school student, learning computer programing in Pennsylvania)

More than three-quarters of U.S. public school teachers are female. So it’s a bit surprising to hear an argument that there aren’t enough women in the profession. It’s kind of like saying there aren’t enough lawyers in Washington. But that’s exactly the case that two new research studies make for what’s needed to produce more women scientists and engineers in this country.

The studies suggest that if there were more female math and science teachers in middle and high school, more girls would study these subjects in college, and that providing female role models earlier in life — before students get to college — might be one of the more effective ways to encourage more girls to pursue higher level math and science. (“Science” broadly refers to all the hard sciences from computer science and physics to chemistry and engineering).

“A lot of the talk has been about trying to promote more female faculty in college. Maybe that’s misdirected,” said Tim Sass, an author of one of the studies and an economist at Georgia State University. “Maybe there should be more emphasis in hiring qualified faculty in the middle and high school level.”

While women dominate the teaching profession, they are somewhat less numerous among middle and high school math and science faculty. According to the Schools and Staffing Survey, conducted by the Department of Education, female teachers make up between 44 and 65 percent of middle and high school math and science faculty, depending upon the subject and the grade. Eighth-grade math teachers are 65 percent female, for example, but only 44 percent of 12th-grade science teachers are female.

The first study, “Growing the roots of STEM majors: Female math and science high school faculty and the participation of students in STEM” (referring to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), published Jan. 31, 2015 in the Economics of Education Review, looked at every student in North Carolina who graduated from a public high school in 2004 and continued on to a public college or university in the state. Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and Duke University had access to a trove of data, from the students’ middle school grades and high school transcripts to family income and school characteristics.

The researchers found that girls who went to high schools where at least 72 percent of the math and science teachers were female were 19 percent more likely to graduate from college with a science or math major than similar students whose only difference was that they went to a high school where only 54 percent of the math and science teachers were female.

The influence of female teachers was even stronger for high achieving girls — the ones who are most likely to have the preparation and ability to complete the demanding coursework of a science major. Among girls who scored at least 580 on the math section of the SATs, there was a 44 percent increase in the likelihood of graduating from college with a science or math degree if they had attended a high school where 72 percent of the math and science teachers were women, compared to a school where just 54 percent of the math and science teachers were women.

Boys, by contrast, were unaffected by the gender mix of their high school teachers.

Martha Bottia, the lead author of the study at U.N.C.-Charlotte, has also conducted interviews with dozens of science students, and said the high school experience is “what matters most” for pursuing higher-level science. “More than half of them make the decision (to major in a science or math subject) before they enter college,” said Bottia, explaining that science majors require more planning and preparation and a commitment to hard work. “It’s not like STEM majors go to college their first year with no idea what they’re going to major in and then decide to do physics.”

In humanities subjects, by contrast, freshman-year professors might be more influential than high school teachers in the selection of a major.

A second study looked at four years’ worth (or cohorts) of students in Florida from fifth grade through college graduation, and found that female math and science teachers as early as middle school make a difference in how many women pursue math and science in college. A still-unpublished working paper from this study, “Understanding the STEM Pipeline,” was delivered on Feb. 20, 2015, at a conference of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), a research consortium of six universities.

This data analysis showed that girls who had higher proportions of female math and science teachers in middle and high school were more likely to take one or more science or math courses during their first year in college. The author, Professor Sass, found that the probability of a young woman taking a math or science course in her freshman year of college increased by 3.3 percentage points as the proportion of female middle and high school teachers went from zero to half. To put that in perspective, that 3.3 percentage-point increase nearly eliminates the gender gap between men and women in the likelihood of taking at least one science or math course in the first year of college, according to Sass.

That’s important because young women in Florida perform nearly as well as young men in math achievement tests. But once they get to college, women are much less likely to take courses in the physical sciences in their first year, and less likely to earn a degree in physics or engineering, even after adjusting for pre-college test scores.

By contrast, Sass found that in college, women were just as likely to complete a major in a hard science whether they had been taught by male professors or female professors.

It does sound crazy, when a majority of K-12 math and science teachers are already women, that the solution to gender inequity in STEM fields might be to create an even more female-heavy teaching profession.  If you followed these studies to their logical extremes, we’d make all high school math and science teachers women.  Personally, I would still prefer to see more male K-12 teachers — because it might increase the prestige of the profession overall.

Your Daughter Is A Dork, And That’s Okay

The Huffington Post

By Rachel Weiss, Posted: 08/01/2013 6:23 am

When I was in middle school, I was an unapologetic dork. I played the saxophone, practiced Spanish with zest, was always picked last for sports teams and couldn’t be bothered with typical “girly” pursuits. As a hobby, I created a newsletter (there were no blogs in those days), deciphering and analyzing lyrics of popular music such as New Edition, Prince and Culture Club. I also had a “band” called Rachel Goes To Epcot Center — I recorded multi-tracks of original songs using a Casio keyboard, a boom box and cassette tapes. This type of eccentricity did not make me popular with the “in crowd,” and I didn’t care.

But in high school, fitting in started to matter more. My self-esteem plummeted as other girls teased me for being different, and I struggled with peer pressure. By the time I was 14, I was nearly failing my biology and geometry courses because I was so consumed with “my outfit and boys,” as my math teacher put it at the time.

I am extremely lucky that my single mother — alarmed at that math teacher’s keen observation — forced me back into study hours and the performing arts. Once again, academics became a priority for me, and I was too focused on performing after school to become distracted. By my senior year, I was engaging with boys by tutoring them all in calculus.

I was almost a casualty of the “leaky pipeline” for girls in STEM. My concepts of femininity and being accepted by my peers temporarily interfered with my self-esteem and my grades. And, as I look at young girls today, I’m afraid that, 30 years later, these threats still exist for young women. We see this through continually decreasing numbers of girls pursuing education in math and science. And cutting budgets for the arts (my saving grace) doesn’t help.

Research shows that parental attitudes can play a role in preventing girls from dropping out of STEM education. Today, I’m a proud dork working in technology: My early newsletters are now my blog, and my recordings have transformed into a podcast. I’m surrounded by amazing smart people — many of whom are also proud dorks — and I founded L’Oreal’s Women In Digital program to celebrate the importance of women working in technology-related fields. And the person I have to thank for my success is my mom.

If you are a parent of a young girl, I urge you to support your daughters who love math, science, technology and the arts and encourage them to stay on their paths. (I am a supporter of what I like to call “STE[A]M,” as the arts helped me get through many tough times). Here are some tips to help them along the way.

Cheer Them On. My mother encouraged me to keep singing, dancing and performing — keeping me out of trouble and involved in my community. She always came to my crazy performances. If you ever meet her, ask her to tell you about my voice recital where I sang a song called “If My Dog Were Green” and the time I joined a Christian performance church group (I’m Jewish.) This encouragement helped me get my self-esteem in check and taught me to be proud of what I loved to do.

Teach Them To Code. Encourage your girls to responsibly express themselves through technology. These skills can provide them with economic viability and a career. My grandfather once told me, “If you learn to type, you will always have a job.” Today, girls need to learn how technology works to build a foundation for their future endeavors.

Encourage Failure. I know that it’s okay to fail, to make mistakes, to not know all of the answers and to doubt your own judgments. My mother instilled this in me. When I didn’t get the part I wanted in a play, she’d always ask me if I did the best I could and that was all that mattered.

Don’t Force A Plan. I see so many young girls under heaps of pressure, and I truly believe that sometimes honing your critical thinking skills is more important than focusing on a career path. I sure didn’t know where I’d be today when I was in college — it took me many years (and mistakes) before I felt like I was “in the right job.” But my professional skills included problem-solving, writing, speaking and math — these skills can be used for any successful career.

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