You don’t need to spend much time in a computer science department or a technology company to realize that there’s a gender imbalance. Women are 18% of CS majors, and that has been declining over the last 30 years. These trends are especially concerning because technology is only going to become more prevalent.
Why the gender gap in computer science exists
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, girls and boys are equally interested in STEM in elementary school. However, by 8th grade boys are twice as likely to be interested in STEM than girls are. This discrepancy doesn’t have to do with ability — there are no differences in standardized math performance from elementary school through college.
Societal perceptions tend to steer men and women in different career directions. When second graders were asked to draw a computer scientist, most of them drew a man in a white lab coat and glasses. Studies show that both women and men perceive men as being more naturally inclined towards the field. Women express less confidence and rate their ability as lower than men even when actual achievement levels are similar.
Introducing girls to technology early
Girl Scout Research Institute shows that early encouragement is a driving factor for girls to take computer science classes — more than confidence or perceptions of ability. 75% of girls surveyed said that having a family member in the computing field was a reason for taking programming courses.
At Wonder Workshop, our goal is to make computer programming fun for children, both boys and girls, as young as 5. We want to enable children to become creators of technology at a young age so they can develop a love for computing and desire to learn more throughout their lives.
Knowing that girls tend to lose interest in STEM around middle school, it was especially important for us to make sure the product was engaging for girls. We did extensive user testing with children of both genders, assessing relative engagement levels with each iteration of our product design. The robots have friendly dispositions and bright, optimistic colors.
The eye of the robots show emotions and feelings, which help children relate to them as friends or pets. One design decision we made as a result of user testing with girls was to hide the wheels on the robot. Girls overwhelmingly associated previous versions of the robots as being a “boy’s toy” because it had wheels. But once we hid the wheels, they saw the robot as more of a relatable creature or friend.
As we develop curriculum to introduce computational thinking, we focus on storytelling, music, and games. “Pinking” of the curriculum or creating toys that appeal to girls (and not boys) only emphasizes the difference in gender and further isolates girls. We believe that creating hands-on learning tools that are equally appealing to both boys and girls is the best way to introduce girls to computer science.