Lauren is a typical all-American 14-year-old. Not only is she sweet and pretty, with perfectly tousled hair and enviable style, she’s also a popular cheerleader, a gifted volleyball player, and a bright student. But after holiday break, something changed. She returned to school, not wearing the usual sweatshirt from Victoria’s Secret Pink, American Eagle or Aeropostale, but rather a black-and green Minecraft tee, with the catchphrase, “Creepers Gonna Creep.”
Minecraft isn’t a typical video game hit. Instead of mindless fun, it teaches kids about chemistry, engineering and survival, and develops their skill in creativity, leadership and teamwork.
“There is so much to make with all the supplies you have in your inventory,” Lauren said, explaining how she and her friends organize farms with livestock. “This world is open to your ideas, so you can go on certain missions with your friends and start a village and have an endless supply of possibilities.”
Those lessons carry over to the classroom. “When we talked about red-stone in science class, I already knew about it from Minecraft,” she added. But beyond elements, she knew chemicals could create reactions — in the game, she said, “bone meal” accelerated the growth of trees, a vital resource needed to build a fire to survive the night.
If classmates overheard this conversation a decade ago, she would have dropped a few rungs on the social ladder. But today, Lauren isn’t a gaming anomaly, and she isn’t afraid to show her tech-pride. She’s a new kind of gamer, the kind of girl who is a potential natural fit for the sciences and technology. And yet she’s not making the leap to a STEM career, posing a bigger obstacle for those that aim to narrow the gender gap in the tech industry.
Men like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are considered the icons of technology, pioneering innovation and founding companies that have a major impact on how we live, work, play and communicate today. Men primarily run the largest tech companies, and mostly men work for them. According to the Los Angeles Times, women account for a mere two to four percent of the engineers and programmers in Silicon Valley.
The fraction is just as small for entrepreneurs, executives and investors, and the lack of women in the boardroom has become so commonplace that Twitter made headlines by simply appointing a female board member.
Some critics and activists want to bridge the gap by speaking out against sexism in workplaces, particularly with its “brogrammer” ethos. Former Facebook employee Katherine Losse detailed a lot of the industry’s sexist practices in her behind-the-scenes book, “The Boy Kings,” about the rise of Facebook.
Others, though, approach the gender gap from the other end, and want to hire more women. The only problem? There aren’t quite enough women to hire yet.
This could change with the next generation of girls coming of age at a time saturated with technology, gaming and a growing emphasis on STEM in education. The stereotype of a gamer was once the geeky boy, cloistered in a dark basement, armed a bottle of orange soda and a stale box of cold pizza for a sidekick. But girls are gaming, programming and downloading with the best of them now.
But that eagerness for Lauren to adopt gaming and gadgets hasn’t transitioned into a greater role of women in Silicon Valley. She shows a talent for tech and science, but she just doesn’t see herself in those fields in the future. Girls like Lauren are a prime opportunity to narrow the gender gap on the ground level — but entrenched attitudes about gender and science may prove harder to change than company policies.
When Lauren plays Minecraft, she’s being primed to “think like a computer.” But somehow, after girls grow out of gaming, they lose interest in science and technology before they enter the workforce. Though they may be good at math and science, they learn the message that these subjects are hard, boring or for boys only. After all, Mattel once released a Barbie that said “Math is hard,” and just recently, teen fashion emporium Forever 21 sold a t-shirt that read “Allergic to Algebra.”
It’s not a surprise then that girls pick up on these messages, even if they’re not aware of it, and downplay their abilities and interest in favor of more traditionally feminine pursuits.”Minecraft help some people get interested in being an engineer because you’re making buildings, railroads and caves,” Lauren said. But then, for all her skill and acumen in the game, she strayed to traditional gender activities. “For example, fashion games could lead us to get into fashion designing. Being a fashion designer has been a career option I have considered.”
“I like working with people and ideas, not math and complicated formulas,” Alyce, her friend, added, alluding to a stereotype of STEM careers. “I don’t think I’d like to be an engineer.”
Those comments, coming from girls who can solve problems, combine formulas and construct worlds as part of a team in Minecraft, hint at a larger challenge: girls are simply not interested in science and engineering jobs, even though they have the abilities for them.
“It’s about converting that boring word ‘engineering’ to something more tangible and meaningful,” Diane Bryant, an Intel senior vice president and general manager, told the Silicon Valley Business Journal. These girls are already unknowingly practicing STEM skills in exciting gameplay with Minecraft, so that is a good starting point.
Studies show girls like Alyce and Lauren want to have careers where they can make a difference in the world — and they need more exposure, education, and experience with the help of key adults in their lives to see how they can achieve these goals in STEM fields.
It’ll take concrete mentors and role models for girls to see that technology can be cool and fun, and not just something for boys. And a few are answering the bell.
Every year, Ayanna Howard, a preeminent robotics scientist, who honed her skills at NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory, sponsors a camp for children from under-represented populations — those from less privileged families, with disabilities, and especially girls — in science and technology, in hopes of giving them a glimpse of what’s possible with robotics and programming.
“A lot of kids don’t even know these fields exist and they are shocked to learn there are jobs like these available,” she said.
In a similar vein, the Girls Who Code summer immersion program attracts girls with its pop culture-infused curriculum, showing how they can apply computer programming skills towards projects that are fun and in touch with their lives and interests. They can use programming projects to make a room of robots dance the Harlem Shake, for example, or reprogram a slot machine to display the faces of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus instead of cherries and bars. Instead of seeing computer science as a nerdy slog, they get a glimpse of its creative possibilities and fun.
Young girls can also look to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer or Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg to give a tangible face, and female viewpoint to what the fairer sex can do in a male-dominated field. With so few examples on television and in movies, these executives are the closest thing many girls have to role models.
The stakes are high to get more girls like Lauren and Alyce into STEM careers. The U.S. lags behind other countries in this regard, according to a report from Women in Global Science and Technology, which will compromise our country’s ability to compete in innovation in the future.
As a result, the gap might grow even larger in the future. Even though seven-of-ten of all STEM jobs will in computing by 2018, only 4,000 girls — or just one-in-five of AP test students — took the AP computer science exam in the United States in 2011. Fewer than 7,600 women graduated college with degrees in computer science.
And these few female computer scientists aren’t entering a workplace understanding of their needs or concerns.
“There is the matter that computer science programs can be difficult places for women,” Losse told me. “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: there aren’t many women in computer science programs, so the environment feels alienating to women, and so fewer women are drawn to these programs.”
“Women in computer science programs, and in the Valley, have to be very tough to combat this, and not all women want to be the guinea pig or the tough cookie in a technical environment,” Losse said. “Men will have to want [the environment] to be a welcoming place for women before it will truly be welcoming to women.”
Companies might change sooner, once they realize that more women in their ranks means more profits. According to Credit Suisse, of the 2,360 companies surveyed, those that had at least one woman in their boardrooms had higher average growth and stock performance, among other metrics, than their all-male counterparts.
Equality, it turns out, is healthier for companies. Women approach making complex decisions faced by companies quite differently from men, according to Marcia Reynolds, author of the book “Wander Women: How High Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.”
“I think it’s because we’re considering more connections so the decision is like how many people will it really affect,” Reynolds told CNN. “It’s not that we’re slower decision makers, we just take more into consideration, and in senior positions, that’s really important that somebody’s in the room saying, ‘Whoa, wait a second. Let’s look at the broader impact.'”
The gender gap sounds difficult to surmount, but other fields have demonstrated that girls and women can make the leap to equality. Just a generation ago, men exclusively occupied the ranks of doctors and lawyers, but in 2012, according to a Wall Street Journal article, women fill the ranks of nearly one-third of those professional positions now.
Part of that is because of popular media, with shows featuring female characters in those roles, and part of that is a concerted effort among schools and other institutions to boost women in their enrollments. A similar push will need to happen in Silicon Valley if the tech industry wants to narrow its gap, and reap the benefits of having more women in the workforce.
Meanwhile, a generation of tech-minded girls, like Lauren and Alyce, are coming of age now, waiting to be lured in. As they sit in the bedrooms, listening to One Direction, while watching E! shows, they also debating over Minecraft strategy — whether they have the resources to build structures in the virtual world, and then, coordinate with friends on who will construct what and when. They aren’t developing software or writing algorithms yet, but they’re at the beginning of that path. They just need the right push, and a glimpse of a worthwhile, girl-friendly destination.
Silicon Valley needs more of these curious and smart girls. But STEM careers are still perceived as isolating, nerdy and unexciting. Maybe it’s a personal preference, maybe it’s old gender beliefs that refuse to die, or the perception that STEM careers are isolating, nerdy and unexciting. But as time passes, attitudes change, albeit slowly.
Lauren and Alyce, for example, don’t see games like Minecraft as boys-only. “I think it is aimed for all kinds of kids,” Alyce said. “I find more of my friends who are girls are playing the game,” Lauren added.
Maybe it’s simply a matter of time before necessity and momentum converges, and girls begin to inundate the offices of the next Google, Facebook and Apple. Changes in gender, work and society, in general, come in waves — like a dance, for every two-steps forward, we might take one step back.
But one thing is certain. Girls are practicing and honing their skills. Lauren took a big step in wearing a Minecraft shirt to school last week, and in the coming decade, she might trade it in for a lucrative corner office at a promising technology firm. ♦