I was recently invited to speak at a conference by the World Bank on “Disrupting the Gender Divide” to answer the following questions: Why are women rarely at the core of a company’s strategy when globally, they control nearly two-thirds of the total overall consumer spending?
My hypothesis was circular.
Women are rarely at the core of a company’s strategy because very few women are in leadership positions at these companies. When it comes to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) based companies, the numbers are even worse. There is an abysmally low number of women in these fields, which translates to an abysmally low number of women STEM leaders. There aren’t many women in STEM fields because girls lose interest in STEM fields starting at age eight. Girls begin losing interest in STEM fields starting at age eight because very few companies design products, shows, and technologies with them in mind. Yet companies do this because they don’t see a lot of women leaders in STEM-related organizations.
This so-called “pipeline issue” has resulted in efforts towards getting more women in tech–at the university level, at the careers stage, and in boardrooms. Yet in 25 years the problem has largely stayed the same. I believe that to change the outcome, we need to break the cycle. If we want more girls in the boardroom, we have to start in the playroom.
We need to encourage girls to see technology as fun
As a girl, I was lucky to have parents who actively encouraged my sisters and I to pursue science, math, and technology. When I was about eight, my dad bought us a Commodore 64, a dot-matrix printer, and lessons in software development. When he traveled, he’d bring us back 3.5″ floppies as gifts, including one to make greeting cards. I played with that software for hours–printing out huge cards on our dot-matrix printer: “Welcome Home Mom” (on a regular Tuesday), “Ayah’s Room Here” (on all walls leading up to my bedroom), and anything else I could create.
My eight-year-old self wasn’t motivated by career aspirations–I just saw it as a fun and creative way to express myself. I think that’s where we need to start. We need to create experiences for girls that allow them to build confidence. But there is a caveat: We have to design these with gender-neutrality in mind.
If a fourth grade girl invents a “bot” that waters her plants, she’s much more likely to have the inspiration to seek out learning in STEM and make her invention better. I started littleBits precisely to create more of those experiences. The products that we make–from switches and sensors to motors and programmable chips–are engineered to encourage kids to invent and create something. The real goal, though, is to get them excited about learning more.
The importance of gender-neutral toys
When I started littleBits, one of my goals was to get more girls into STEM. Yet I was (and still am) vehemently opposed to creating gendered products. After all, fun, creativity, and play are not gendered concepts, so why should we design products that are? With this goal in mind, I had to grapple with a more significant question. How could we take every single opportunity to inject gender-neutrality into our process?
I knew that we had to start with designing a product that didn’t look boyish or girly. That meant sweating the small things–down to what some might see as minutia. Our Bits have white circuit boards, which break with traditional circuit board colors (usually green or black) so that it doesn’t get lumped into being a product for boys. They also have bright neon colored connectors that look like candy because all kids (and adults) like candy. In addition, our design team made an effort to make the circuits look beautiful. These choices get more girls to perceive the product as “for them,” yet it’s not off-putting for the boys.
Going a step further, we also made sure that the product’s purpose isn’t gendered. For example, rather than promoting robots and vehicles, we promote flashlights, ferris wheels, bubble blowers, and sibling alarms. Kids get to pick what inspires them, or what problem they are solving: a pesky sibling, a pet feeder, an art project.
Lastly, we knew that we couldn’t ignore the packaging. One reason why a lot of girls don’t gravitate towards STEM is because they don’t see a lot of scientists and mathematicians that look like them. To me, this is the biggest opportunity for change. We are deliberately gender-neutral in the design of our communications and marketing materials, from the kids on the cover, the inventions we select for publicity, as well as the kid inventors we showcase.
We’ve seen great rewards from implementing these measures. Today, 35-40 percent of our customer base is girls–four times the industry average. That result didn’t happen overnight or by accident. We set a goal to do it, we measured it, and we continued to iterate until we found a method that works.
We need to meet girls where they have interests
It’s not enough to get more girls into computer science programs. To change outcomes, we need to start earlier and disrupt the playroom. We need to meet girls where they have interests, but we should be careful to make sure that we don’t design products that drive boys away. Otherwise, the gender stereotype prevails.
I can’t predict how many of our girls will grow up to be tech entrepreneurs and scientists, but I know this for sure–by exposing them to science and technology early on, we’re giving them a message that they belong in this field. And that’s going to have an enormous impact as they grow up and decide what paths to pursue.
Ayah Bdeir is the founder and CEO of littleBits. She has earned countless awards for her work, including acquisition into the MoMA permanent collection, recognition in Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business, and Inc. Magazine’s 35 Under 35.