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Engineering Gender Biases – From LEGOs to the Workplace

February 18, 2014

Melanie Meisenheimer ’14  Women in Leadership

Last week, at the same time that female Olympians were putting a new crack in the glass ceiling, a study found that the few women who pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) careers are not sticking around. The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) released their findings that show women are 45 percent more likely than men to quit their STEM jobs in the first few years of starting.

Women have yet to reach parity with men in obtaining STEM degrees, and among those who do obtain STEM degrees, it seem the obstacles may have just begun. Upon entering the workforce, something is preventing women from continuing to climb the ladder in STEM fields. According to the CTI’s research, only a quarter of American STEM workers are women, and nearly 20 percent of women who have STEM degrees have left the labor force completely. The reasons behind this are indicative of the barriers that women have yet to overcome. Annie-Rose Strasser theorizes that STEM careers are not accommodating to primary caretakers of children and that those at the top of the pyramid in STEM fields continue to hold biases against women.

These biases are not just coming from head honchos in corner offices, however. This week we also saw attention being drawn to the increasing gender divisions seen in children’s toys, especially LEGOs. The Huffington Post did a then-and-now comparison of how LEGO has marketed its toys to young girls and the results make it easy to understand why women continue to lag in STEM, engineering in particular.

Rachel Giordano starred in a 1981 LEGOs print ad as a four-year old. She is shown proudly showing off her LEGO creation built using classic, multi-colored LEGOs.  Giordano was tracked down to replicate the ad, this time using a LEGO product marketed specifically to girls. The new toy is a pink and aqua colored news van that features a makeup table for its newscaster’s use, and is marketed with the phrase “Break the big story of the world’s best cake with the Heartlake News Van!” No actual building or engineering is involved and the focus is placed on make-up, baking, and aesthetics rather than creativity.

It seems more than a little paradoxical that we want more girls to succeed in math and science in school, and we want more women to go on to successful careers in STEM fields, yet even in early childhood we dissuade them from the very skills and activities that these subjects require. It is no wonder women face gender bias in the workplace if we are taught from an early age that girls should not want to build things, or even that they cannot build things. This does not just diminish girls’ beliefs in their own capacity, it also shapes the way the rest of society will treat them. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see how a little boy who is told by the media that he is good at building things, while girls are not, can turn into a CEO who does not believe women have what it takes to be successful in his company.

Women are starting to break the STEM stereotypes. Women are now 41 percent of science and engineering graduates – a statistic that shows they are not yet equal, but have made remarkable strides. Nevertheless, biases against women entering STEM fields remain ingrained in American culture. From the moment children begin playing and developing skills that will translate into their future careers we make the distinction between what girls can and should do, and what boys can and should do. Changing the workplace environment is one way to help ensure women play a meaningful field in rapidly developing STEM fields, but it will probably take a much broader cultural shift for the change to be meaningful and durable.

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