Girls today are steering away from math, science and computers in record numbers.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of women graduates in computer science is at a 39-year low.
In 2012, women in the U.S. earned only 19% of all math and computer science degrees (compared to 37% 20 years ago) and made up less than 25% of the workers in engineering and computer-related fields.
Fewer than 10 percent (9.8) of American engineers today are women.
These statistics stand in stark contrast to the gains that women have achieved in law, medicine, and other areas of the workforce over the past 20 years.
While the lack of women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is often attributed to lack of ability or desire on the part of women, a more likely explanation is that societal beliefs, or stereotypes, color our view – insidiously sending our young girls the message that women do not have strong mathematical ability and that men make better engineers and scientists.
So how do we reverse this trend?
Sheryl Sandberg, the outspoken COO of Facebook and a role model for women in technology, recently gave some interesting – and very simple advice on how we, as parents, can encourage our daughters to take an early interest in the STEM fields.
Sandberg’s advice? Encourage our daughters to play more video games – and even play with them – to pique their interest in computers.
“Computer games are the gateway to computer science,” Sandberg said during a talk she gave in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania about gender equality in the workplace.
“A lot of kids code because they play games. Give your daughters computer games,” she said. “Ask them to play them.”
So what is the correlation between playing video games and interest in technology or STEM careers?
According to Annie Murphy Paul, a writer for KQED’s Mind/Shift, playing action video games develops kids’ spatial skills, which are an important predictor of creative and scholarly achievements. Moreover, Paul writes:
High scores on tests of spatial ability taken at age 13 predicted something more surprising: the likelihood that the individual would develop new knowledge and produce innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the domains collectively known as STEM.
Referring to a study by University of Toronto researchers published in the journal Psychological Science, Paul writes that “exposure to video games could play a significant role as part of a larger strategy designed to interest women in science and engineering careers.”
And why do we care that our daughters develop an interest in science and technology? Because that is where the jobs are.
While number of jobs in high tech soars, the number of women filling them has dwindled in recent years. There are fewer women pursuing high tech careers today than there were in the 1980s.
And as Sandberg rightly points out, since high-tech jobs pay well, a gender gap in computer science ties into the wage gap, where on average women still make 70 cents to the dollar compared to men.
I’ve recently noticed my two daughters taking an interest in Minecraft, an imaginative video game in which players can build – and take apart – constructions out of three-dimensional cubes. It’s kind of like Legos on steroids.
At first, I was resistant to the idea of my girls playing video games. My sons – and husband – have always been the video game junkies in our household. My girls have leaned more towards music, dance and imaginative play in their free time. Frankly, I liked the idea that they weren’t glued to a computer screen.
I didn’t realize that by condoning this gendered disparity in my children’s “play,” I was sending them a gender-stereotyped message that video games and computer programming are just for boys -not to mention contributing to the nationwide wage gap.Whether this is a passing fad or a sign that my girls will one day be tech superstars, I’d better go fire up the Xbox downstairs– and figure out how to use it– before they get home from school!