As you may have heard, getting women into STEM careers is a major concern these days. From 2008-2018, projected job growth is 17% for science, technology, engineering, and math fields, versus 9.8% for other fields. However, as of 2009, STEM job-holders were 76% male and 24% female. The gender distribution of all jobs in 2009 was 52% male and 48% female.
You can see how that’s a problem. Women make up nearly half the workforce, but hold only a fourth of jobs in the fastest growing fields, which also pay better, by the way.
So, how do we get girls interested in these career fields?
I like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s suggestion about how to interest girls in computer science: “Encourage your daughters to play video games!” The article I pulled the quote from calls this “counterintuitive,” but it also points out that playing games can foster curiosity about how games work, as well as ideas for creating new games. Now, I may be a bit biased toward this opinion, as it validates my family’s (weekend) gaming lifestyle, but come on—if we don’t introduce kids to STEM in a fun way, it will be hard to interest anyone, male or female.
I was pretty excited about that article when I read it this summer. But then I walked into the children’s room at my library.
You know the “pink aisle” of any department store’s toy section? The one with the princesses and the fashion dolls and the ponies and the cute little pets and the girlified LEGOs? The one that says, “Hey girls, everything you want is here, where you don’t have to deal with those superheros and vehicles and proper LEGOs.”
Yeah, that aisle packed itself up and jammed itself into a gaming website, and it confronted me in my own library!
Maybe you’ve seen these sites already, but if not I’d like to invite you to share in my pain. Just do a web search for “girls online games.” There is a 9:1 chance that you will be confronted with various shades of pink and/or purple, and a bunch of inane gaming choices that completely underestimate tween girls.
Pick your poison: Would you like a dress-up game, a makeover game, a shopping game, a celebrity game, a princess game, a cute animal game, a cooking game, or even a kissing game! (One of the sites I looked at—aimed at 8-12 year olds, mind you—had nearly 50 kissing games. While I couldn’t bring myself to play one, I have to assume that there is little variation between them.)
This cannot possibly be what Sheryl Sandberg had in mind.
Here’s an example for you: Nerdy Girl Makeover 2!
Close the book, poindexter! It’s time for you to look good, which you can’t possibly do while learning and knowing things. Get ready for some exciting game play, girls! First, click that bottle of personal care product. Now click her face. Now click the towel. Now click her face again. Those aren’t cute freckles by the way—it’s acne, and you’ll have to click every single blemish until they’re gone. And be prepared to pluck the horrendous eyebrows she’s got hiding under those dorky glasses!
I kid you not.
Now, the games on these sites aren’t all as awful as Nerdy Girl Makeover 2. And I’m not trying to say that there’s anything wrong with cooking games or cute animal games, or any of the aforementioned categories (although I’m still iffy about the kissing games). My problem is that these girl game websites don’t offer enough depth or variety to appeal to all girls, or hold their interests for very long.
So what do we do?
I don’t have the answer. If any of us did, we wouldn’t have a problem. But I have had a few ideas about how to counter the effects of these “pink aisle” gaming websites:
- Use books. Booktalk and/or display biographies of ladies like Marie Curie, Sally Ride, Rosalind Franklin, and other women who made names for themselves in the STEM fields.
- Profile women in your community. STEMinist provides a great example of how to showcase women in STEM. Why not identify local women with STEM careers that would make great role models, and profile them for your young patrons?
- Recruit girls for your STEM programs. A lot of libraries are getting into STEM programming, and it’s critical for girls to know they’re invited. In my experience, they don’t need much convincing to attend this type of program. Even just letting girls know they’re welcome in your LEGO programs will help.
- Be mindful in your video game collection development. If you circulate games, be careful of the ones in pink cases. I have two daughters (ages 7 and 9) and about a third of our Nintendo DS games are pink. Some are okay. Some are awful. Consult reviews, watch trailers, and try to get a feel for gameplay. If it’s all, “Help Cinderella walk down this hallway without spilling her tray of drinks,” avoid.
Those are my thoughts. If you have other ideas, please share in the comments. And, out of curiosity, are you seeing these “pink” gaming websites in your library? Do you find it troubling, or am I overreacting and it’s really not such a big deal?
Amy Graves is a children’s librarian at the Manchester City Library in New Hampshire, and a member of the ALSC Children & Technology Committee. She is actually fond of the color pink, just not always what it represents. You can find her not-so-professionally on Twitter at @amygrav. She continues the conversation about pink aisle gaming on her personal blog.