I’m a huge fan of the latest pushes to get more girls into STEM. Google’s Girls Who Code project, which they recently invested $50M into, is one of the many projects going on across the country to make engineering more attractive to young girls across the country. Today, a viral ad came out which rubbed some people the wrong way, but tried to make a clear point. Girls are often raised to keep clean, stay away from experiments, be cautious, and this is why while 40% of girls say they like math and science in 4th grade, only 18% of engineers are female (watch the ad for yourself below.)
While the math in the ad doesn’t exactly add up (not everyone who likes math and science will become an engineer… there are a lot of other jobs where math is valued in financial services, medical fields, etc), the core point is something that I’m glad is being raised. I often wonder if I was born 20 years later, would even I be an engineer? Well, maybe not.
Engineering was not a word I understood until my 20s. While I was quite the nerd in early elementary school, making a game of math workbooks and learning multiplication prior to second grade, my mind soon had trouble focusing on everything that seemed impractical. I didn’t like math or science once it became about memorization and not at all connected to the real world.
While I was virtually flunking out of my math and science classes come high school (I managed to graduate and get into college with a fairly high SAT score and a reasonably killer art portfolio), I was coming home from school and spending hours on the computer (back during the days of dial up) coding my Geocities website. It was basic HTML but I messed around with it and learned how to use iframes and some graphic work. It was the same time period — 1998 – 2001 — when had I lived in Silicon Valley as a teenager, I would have been employed with even my level of skills. Instead, this was just a hobby, and I didn’t think it would be valuable at all to anyone. I wasn’t exactly patient enough to be good at it, but nonetheless, for fun, I made websites.
In college I took on a small part-time job to build the website for a department at my school. I enjoyed the design part of it more than the coding part, the coding part served the end purpose, but I’d prefer not to be the one doing the coding. On one hand, I have the mind of an engineer (I understand logic and complex patterns relatively easily, especially if I’m allowed to visualize them somehow), on the other, I wasn’t attracted to the idea of sitting behind a computer and coding for the rest of my life. But why would I be? My parents rewarded me for getting up on stage and singing or creating a painting that they could show off to their friends. I don’t remember either of them ever being proud of me for teaching myself to code a website. I’m not even sure they knew that I did. The only thing they knew was that I spent too much time on our one family computer and I had to get off of it when my father came home from work.
That said, my parents did let me get a bit dirty. They were cautious parents so I wasn’t allowed to do anything too crazy, but I certainly spent too much time collecting worms only to chop them in half and watch them grow again in two. Unlike the girl in the video my parents encouraged projects to get a bit out of hand. I didn’t have any brothers so I’m not sure if or how they would treat a boy differently than they treated me. I never asked to go to science camp. I wanted dance classes and singing lessons and art school. Science was for school, and school was useless and something I had to just get through. I stopped learning anything taught at school back in second grade. How I graduated is beyond me. I seemed to have this belief that if I couldn’t pick something up easily it wasn’t worth doing. I could fake art enough to seem good at it, at least for a kid. English class was usually me making up the plot of a book for my book reports and passing with a note from my teachers on how I got most of the details wrong but my report sure was creative.
Yet I wonder why I really lost interest in math and science. My dad — a math/science graduate — had no patience for my inability to understand formulas. I got frustrated with myself quickly and felt stupid because these things didn’t come naturally to me, so I gave up. I preferred to spend time memorizing lines or practicing singing because — even though I wasn’t actually good at that either — the end result came with much greater reward. I also was raised to care a lot about how I looked. My mom would constantly tell me to wear makeup and criticize my clothing which revealed my belly, and my parents would indirectly call me fat. So I was also depressed about this. I just wanted to impress them. Science and math, especially because they didn’t come naturally to me and I couldn’t fake understand them, wasn’t worth trying to figure out.
Now at 30 I work for a technology company with some of the smartest data scientists in the world. I have such respect for these people who are so driven by patterns and logic (and yes, they are mostly male), but it’s clear that we think very differently. I’m convinced that’s not a result of my parents making me focus more on my makeup skills than programming skills as a child. That’s just my mind. I have this creative mind that understands patterns and logic but believes that innovation is largely a design problem, not a data problem. Data should be used to refine, not to innovate.
Even so, I really wish that somehow at some point in my earlier life I had been excited to learn more sophisticated programming skills. I tried to take a C++ course in my 20s and got frustrated and gave up. Yet had I been offered an opportunity to learn to code as a child and create using code, maybe I would have been more into it. Maybe I’d be an engineer today.
But the ad isn’t about me. It’s about all of the girls who are now going through the education system. It’s about the future of technology and business. It’s about getting more women into technology. Girls today grow up with technology being cool vs geeky. This should help. But when girls grow up in households where computer programming is not part of the family (i.e. my dad’s family was filled with engineers but they were more civil engineer types), how would they know about the possibilities? In my mind people good in science became doctors, people good in math became finance planners or lawyers, and only artists were able to create.
There’s so many ways to blend art and programming to inspire those in the arts to get excited about computers. I’m not sure this would encourage more girls to go into STEM, but it might help.