The stats on female representation in the world of engineering are woeful. In the U.S., only 10% of engineers are women. For Debbie Sterling, an engineering grad from Stanford who is now a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, this was a percentage she had to change.
Sterling’s goal in life, as her Kickstarter bio states, is to inspire the next generation of female engineers. However convincing young girls, let alone children in general, of the wonders of engineering is a daunting task. Sterling thinks she has cracked it though with GoldieBlox, a toy and book geared towards girls aged between 5 and 9.
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The toy includes a book, character figurines — including GoldieBlox herself, a skinny blonde-haired girl in overalls, Benjamin Cranklin the cat and several other animals — and a construction set to allow the girls to build whatever Goldie is building in the book.
Sterling, who market tested her product before she launched it on the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter, was initially surprised at how many girls were excited by the prospect of building. Speaking with The Atlantic, she explained how Goldie builds a spinning wheel in the first story:
“There’s just this moment of excitement for a girl when they wrap this ribbon around this wheel and they pull it and it spins,” Sterling says. “It’s such a basic engineering principle of a wheel spinning on an axle, but it is this magical moment for every girl I have tested.”
Sterling based her model on the notion that boys have stronger spatial skills, whereas girls are better with verbal skills – including that of storytelling. Goldieblox is essentially a vehicle for getting girls who play with the toy to engage with a problem-solving task.
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The true test for the product — which has now gone over its fundraising target on Kickstarter — is whether it will work. Will little girls playing with a toy be instilled with a desire to grow up and become engineers? It’s a daunting question, and any answer will take years to resolve itself.
Sterling’s toy also relies on a certain amount of gender stereotyping, a matter of much debate among scientists, teachers and social commentators. Are the brain’s gender differences something humans are born with, or do they evolve later — based on what kids learn from the media, peer groups and, say, toys? GoldieBlox, which is based on the assumption that the girl brain is naturally different to the boy brain, arguably plays up to this stereotype while attempting to neutralize it.
But, as Sterling says to the Atlantic: “You have to meet the girls where they are.”