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Are toys and video games to blame for the tech gender gap?

Posted by Chad O'Connor  December 4, 2013 11:00 AM

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Women in technology jobs are overwhelmingly outnumbered by their male counterparts. At TipTap Lab, we have about an even mix of men and women working in our departments, including our engineering and technology team. This isn't something that should be terribly surprisingly. One might imagine that, since the population of the US has a gender ratio of approximately 50/50, the gender ratio in technology jobs would be the same. Unfortunately, the welcoming working environment and equal gender ratio at TipTap Lab are the exception, rather than the rule.

Why is this? Why are so few women pursuing degrees and jobs in technology compared to men? I can only speculate from my own anecdotal experience, but I suspect that the reason we see so few women in technology has more to do with our culture than with our jobs.

From an early age, girls are taught that being smart and taking an interest in technology isn't something girls do. When you walk into a toy store, take a walk down the girls' aisle - you'll be able to find it easily. It's the one full of predominantly pink and purple boxes full of stuffed toys, pretty dress up clothes, and fake jewelry. The closest thing you see to a scientific toy is likely to be an Easy Bake Oven, or some other child safe cooking kit. If you see a chemistry set, it's probably one that's been re-marketed for girls by painting it pink and gearing it towards making perfume and make-up.

Now walk down the boys' aisle. That's the one that's full of vehicles, models of vehicles, remote control dinosaurs, chemistry sets to make all kinds of things, and robot-building kits. In short, the boys' aisle is full of toys that encourage a natural curiosity about how things work, how things move, and how things are put together. The girls' aisle, by contrast, sends the message that girls should primarily be concerned with playing with dolls, cooking, and looking pretty.

Children's toys tell us that the only way a girl should be interested in technology and science is if it helps her cook or look pretty, while boys are expected to want to learn how to put things together and take them apart.

But children's toys aren't the only way children develop an interest in things. I personally wanted to learn computer science because I liked video games so much. So, leave the toy aisles behind, and take a stroll over to the video games section. Find a video game with a male protagonist. I bet it took you all of two seconds, right?

Now, locate a video game with a female protagonist. It's probably going to take a while. Once you've managed that, if you do, take a look at the female protagonist in question. Odds are good that she's dressed in a sexy outfit, or placed in an impractical yet sexy pose that's meant to appeal to male gamers. If she is, put that game down and look for one with a female protagonist that isn't sexualized. It might take hours. You might not find one at all. And if you do find one, there's about a 30% chance it's a game called Cooking Mama, which is about - you guessed it - cooking, one of the few interests little girls should have according to our toy companies.

The toys aren't to blame. They're a symptom of a wider, cultural attitude towards gender roles. It wasn't all that long ago that it was a radical thing for any woman to so much as be college-educated, let alone have a job in technology. We've come a long way since then, but we have farther still to go before the legacy of that cultural attitude towards women completely disappears. But I think we'll get there, someday. Working at a place like TipTap Lab gives me a lot of hope that "someday" isn't too far off.

Lauren Marino is a Software Engineer at TipTap Lab.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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