How do we get young girls to stick with science? The stats, we know, are abysmal: according to the National Foundation of Science, 66 percent of fourth grade girls say they like science and math, but only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female. There’s a fire in young girls to hypothesize and explore and discover. Where do we lose them?
In a new ad, “Inspire Her Mind,” produced by Verizon and Makers and narrated by Girls Who Code founder, Reshma Saujani, we watch a girl spend her entire childhood absorbing the well-intentioned but stealthily gendered messages of her parents — to place her value on her beauty, to not get her dress dirty, to let her brother handle the power drill — only to reach high school and, well, see for yourself:
I spoke with Saujani by phone, who said that Verizon and Makers brought the project to her. “People always ask me, what is it? Why aren’t girls opting into computer science? What’s the issue? And so much of it is about culture. It’s the messages we’ve subtly and unconsciously sent to girls: that computer science and math is not for you. The video shows these little things that we do… that send these messages to these girls that this is not for you: don’t play, don’t get dirty. I think we teach girls at a very young age not to get dirty, to be nice, this whole princess myth. We indoctrinate our girls to behave in a certain way. And it translates to us as adults: we’re afraid of rejection, we don’t fail, we have to do the job before we apply for the job, we’re constantly worried about being liked.”
Usually, I get a little queasy when I see corporations attempt to co-opt girl power messaging into their advertisements. There is nothing empowering about those ridiculous, oft-lampooned Dove “Real Beauty” ads, for instance, and I am underwhelmed by Pantene’s efforts at the same. Somehow, the beauty business — an industry that relies on and thrives off the insecurity of women who believe they can’t leave the house without makeup and/or Disney princess hair — and female empowerment read as totally contradictory messaging.
But the idea of Verizon, one of the biggest broadband and telecommunication companies in the country, co-signing the movement to get more girls engaged in STEM, makes a lot more sense. All these fourth grade girls crushing it at science fairs could have the keys to the Verizon kingdom someday; there’s a meaningful connection there.
“I think that the lack of women and girls in this field, it’s an economic problem for the country,” said Saujani. “The more women you have creating these projects, the more girls becoming hackers and scientists and coders, the more products you’ll sell. It makes business sense to get more women in this field.” She added that, given a lack of federal funding for computer science education, private corporations are where organizations like hers will find the most financial support. “We want to teach as many girls as possible how to code, and right now, the government isn’t doing that. So getting support from these bigger companies to get girls to learn how to code so she can become the next Mark Zuckerberg, that’s great. We want to uplift these girls and change the trajectories of their lives.
“I actually think given where we’re at and the lack of women in this field, it really does make economic and business sense. Having technology companies involved in closing the gender gap is intuitive.”
Makers produces thousands of videos about “trailblazing women.” The goal of Girls Who Code is to achieve gender parity in computing fields by 2020, which means educating 4.6 million girls in computer science. Google’s been getting in on the action, too, signing on Mindy Kaling as a celebrity spokesperson for MadeWithCode, an initiative aimed at inspiring young women to learn coding skills.
So to this I say, a tip of the hat to you, Verizon and Makers and Girls Who Code! I support all of this. Except for that whole glitter on the science project thing. Seriously, that glitter will never, ever come out of her bedspread. She will find glitter in her bedroom until the zombie apocalypse. Glitter is forever. Proceed with caution.