Legos have often been called the most ingenious toy ever invented. In the novel Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder argued that legos deserve that title because they can be used to build just about anything. And some experts believe that if we give legos to young girls, it may help solve the lack of women in Silicon Valley problem.
Only 1.7% of venture capital-backed startups are founded by women and in the 2011 winter class of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s exclusive startup fund and only about 4% of the founders had been women. In the summer class, the numbers were even worse. There were only two women out of 160, which means women only accounted for 1%.
Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, told Quartz he believes the problem starts when men and women are just entering adolescence. Around the age of 13 boys tend to show more interest in hacking than girls and they tend to do so in pairs.
But Jessica Mah, a computer science graduate from Berkely, member of the 2010 class of YC and founder of InDinero, believes the problem starts before the teenage years. When Mah was asked about the rarity of women in computer science she couldn’t come up with a good explanation so she decided to ask the women in Berkeley’s computer science department what toys they had played with as children. Her goal was to see if Barbies were a favorite. Well in this group the answer was no. Legos were way cooler than Barbie.
“Children have toys not because they have purchased them but because they have received them as gifts from their parents or other adults. That transaction sends important signals to young girls and boys about who their parents want them to be. In putting a girls’ engineering toy on store shelves, Sterling is giving parents the opportunity to send the message to their daughters that they are “little engineers” too, and they don’t have to be any less girly to be excited about building and design.”
Ma also noticed that most of the female computer scientists had either a mother or a father who was an engineer. Her father, an engineer, had given her Legos and science kits as a kid.
According to San Francisco-based entrepreneur Debbie Sterling who studied engineering at Stanford, girls, she says, begin demonstrating less interest in science, math, and engineering when they are as young as eight. “Take a walk through a toy store and you can begin to see why; the ‘blue aisle’ is filled with construction toys and chemistry sets, while the ‘pink aisle’ is filled with princesses and dolls,” read the press materials from her company. “If we want more female engineers, we need to open their minds to engineering at a young age.”
Sterling spent more than a year researching these questions and eventually developed Goldie – a female engineer character who solves engineering problems within the context of a short story. Even though Barbie is a lawyer, doctor, swim model and ambassador she can’t actually build machines, but Goldie can in this iPad book, with the girl’s help. Sterling recommends girls as young as five using this toy. This is when gender identity really sets in in children.
As the book progresses, the building projects get more complex, and the girls have to create contraptions that can spin more and more of the story’s characters. Sterling recalled, “I kept hearing the same thing over and over again: Girls saying ‘I want to spin all the animals! I want to spin all the animals!’ They get really into it. Rather than just tossing the construction element aside and just play-acting with the characters (which is what I thought might happen), they really wanted to build.”