Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Toys to Tech: The Impact of Gender Stereotypes in the Tech Industry

I’d like to begin by drawing attention to the fact that I am an aspiring engineer. Only 18 years old and still a college education to go, I’m just now noticing the fact that there are very few female engineers. I’d never really noticed it before, or maybe I just didn’t care, but considering that I am entering the field, I realize “Where are all the females?” is a pretty good question to ask right about now. After living in the United States for my entire life, going through the American school system, and being part of an American generation, I believe I’ve discovered the answer to the question that Google is pouring incredible amounts of money and resources into. And quite unfortunately, with the conclusion that I’ve drawn, Google’s money can’t solve the problem this time. It is, without a doubt, the fault of our ancestors and the gender roles that have been assigned to us centuries ago. Although gender expectations have loosened tremendously over the ages, our actions of assigning gender roles to our children have transcended time, and sadly enough, they are far from intentionally sexist.
In researching and observing this topic in depth, I’ve found a number of articles that blame various different phenomena for the gender gap. In all of this, the articles and posts that have sat worst with me were those condemning women for not taking it upon themselves to enter the industry. One article entitled “Women and Video Gaming’s Dirty Little Secret” ridicules women for allowing the fear of sexism to dissuade them from entering the tech fields. Although I agree that sexism within the workplace is not something that should be feared, when author and head of her company’s Human Resources department, Gabrielle Toledano says, “If women don’t join this industry because they believe sexism will limit them, they’re missing out,” she misses the point completely. Nowhere in the article does Toledano provide a real reason why women are not joining into the industry, she only states that women are needed and should not be scared to join. But contrary to what Toledano writes, women actually aren’t scared to join, they’re simply taught not to.
To test my own theory about this, I conducted a small survey on my college campus. I asked both males and females what their majors were, and what prompted them to choose their respective majors. Not surprisingly, approximately 80% of the students I surveyed claimed that they had a life experience that made them realize that they wanted to pursue their field of interest. Many cited childhood experiences including but not limited to toys, trips, and clubs. One man shared a story about how a father and son camping trip sparked his interest in plant biology. A father and son trip is such a rite of passage that many deem part of “our culture.” But where did this culture originate from? Father and son outings have been around for many generations, generations that our ancestors were part of. It is not intentionally sexist to have a father and son camping trip nor a mother and daughter spa day, but these events expose us to certain experiences, and shape us in certain ways. They promote gender stereotypes that we do not think of as a problem.
Although the father and son camping trip example does not directly have to do with engineering (considering the boy was not even an engineering major), it does show that gender roles expose us to certain events that the other gender does not get to experience as easily. Gender specific outings promote stereotypes that do not trouble us; stereotypes that are so embedded within our culture that we do not even think of them as stereotypes anymore. We simply accept that that is how our world works, but it just so happens that these events shape our futures more than we think about. In this specific example, without truly realizing it, we encourage boys to be adventurous and to build things, and we influence girls to be beautiful.
On a blog called Lea’s Pensieve, Lea makes many incredibly good points about how daily life shapes people and allows them to cultivate their interests. She includes this comic as an example of how gender roles set boys up to become engineers and women up to become caretakers. In this example of presents given to boys versus those given to girls, it is hard to argue that the parents are trying to actively encourage the boy to become an engineer but not for the girl to be. Most of the time, little things such as childhood toys are able to make a large impact on the interests of the child. Interests are often cultivated at a young age, and if girls are not encouraged to be creative and mechanically imaginative in their youth, the chances that they will grow up to be an engineer will lessen significantly.
I really do not believe that sexism in the workplace keeps women out of the tech industry. How could it? How could they choose not to study in the STEM fields because of sexism that they have not even experienced? They have not yet stepped into the workplace before they choose not to enter it. No, something is stopping women from even attempting to pursue the subjects. Our gender expectations are inherently sexist, and they are expectations that need to change. We need to start giving our kids equal opportunities to become interested in any given subject, and not let our ancestors and traditional gender roles define our futures.
Perhaps it was because my father never had any sons, or perhaps we can attribute it to his incredibly forward thinking, but while some families had season passes to theme parks, mine had a membership at the Tech Museum. Every weekend, we would go listen to lectures on biotechnology and how entire diseases were being eradicated in different parts of the world because of the incredible technology that people had been devising. My childhood experiences directly impacted my interests and thus led me to my major today. All that mattered was that I became interested in what I was being exposed to, and that is something that women are lacking in this day and age.
Why is it that nobody can pinpoint this flaw in our upbringing? I’ve seen complaints about sexism within the workplace, entire books on how the American school system favors boys, and articles about how math and science are not given importance (care to explain the male engineers then?). But the solution to having more women in tech lies in something so much more simple. It lies in encouragement of young girls to pursue engineering by being creative and not letting traditional gender roles inhibit the changing world and workforce. It starts with our parents. It did for me, anyways.

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