Of the millions of engineers worldwide, only about 14 percent are women. To some, this statistic is prima facie proof that women are unjustly prevented from joining what is generally regarded as a desirable and socially beneficial profession. To others, it merely shows that the difference between men and women extends to aptitudes and career choices. But to Stanford mechanical-engineering graduate Debbie Sterling, that statistic represents a challenge she is tackling with her company, GoldieBlox.
The firm’s mission statement, prominently displayed on their website below a pie chart showing the infamous 14% number, says that its goal is to “get girls building.” GoldieBlox’s line of construction toys are designed to appeal especially to girls, and come with storybooks about female engineering role models. These kits include “GoldieBlox and the Dunk Tank,” “GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine,” and a GoldieBlox zipline action figure—the character herself as a doll with long blonde tresses, dressed in a tee shirt and overalls and definitelynot possessed of a Barbie-doll-like figure. Although I have not bought toys for young children for many years and my judgment on such matters is therefore suspect, the kits look a little on the pricey side to me. You can lay out as much as a couple hundred bucks for the Solid Gold(ie) Package, which includes nearly every item in their catalog. But hey—if it can really turn your little Mabel or Doris into an engineer, it’s worth it, isn’t it?
GoldieBlox has been around for only a couple of years (Sterling founded it in 2012 with help from Kickstarter), and so it is too soon to tell whether the firm, and other similar girl-oriented science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) products now available, will push that 14% number higher. But GoldieBlox, as a privately funded self-supporting free-enterprise company, is a welcome addition to the sometimes heavy-handed efforts of the federal government to do the same thing. While I have not received funding from the U. S. National Science Foundation for many years, I have kept up with its various programs and policies enough to know that the paucity of women in engineering and other STEM fields is of great concern to that agency. According to one source, NSF will spend over $800 million in fiscal year 2014 on education and human resources, and it is safe to say that a good fraction of that will go toward programs aimed at increasing the participation of women in STEM fields at all levels.
Rarely does any discussion of this topic stray into the fundamentals of the ethical concerns involved, so I will try to do a little of that here. One argument in favor of increasing the number of women in engineering is purely utilitarian. It has two premises and a conclusion. Premise One is “Women and men are equally capable of being engineers.” Premise Two is “Only 14% of engineers are women.” The conclusion is “A lot of women who could be engineers are not becoming engineers.” At this point, the pleas from industry that they cannot find enough good engineers are brought in to justify spending tax money on special programs designed to encourage women to enter STEM fields.
This argument has the advantage that it relies on statistics. Premise Two is an undeniable statistical fact, and as for Premise One, you can find psychological and educational studies that support the contention that women as a group have the brainpower needed to do most engineering jobs. But to get from the conclusion of this syllogism, which is factual, to a call to action—”we should get more women into engineering”—requires that we either ignore all the other possible things that the potential-engineer women could do with their lives, or perform a complex global optimization problem involving the entire working population. So this argument doesn’t take you as far as it seems to promise at first, at least without a lot of public-policy help smuggled in at the last minute.
Another argument, which in my view is much stronger, is based on the generally accepted notion that irrational prohibitions and thoughtless misallocation of opportunities and role models are wrong. To give a personal example of the first, my wife was the daughter of a highway engineer. When she was in high school in the 1960s, she wanted to take a drafting class, because she had seen the kind of drawings that her father did at work and she thought that might be a good thing to learn. She was told that “girls don’t take drafting,” and ended up in a home economics class. While the feminist movement of the 1970s had has many far-reaching effects, not all of which were positive, I think it is a good thing that such arbitrary sex-related employment exclusions are largely a thing of the past.
The lack of opportunities and role models for women is a similar problem, although these fall more into the category of sins of omission than commission. As GoldieBlox founder Sterling learned when she was a girl, construction toys were made and marketed for boys, not girls. Now that her company is around, that is no longer the case, although time will tell whether enough enlightened parents will buy GoldieBlox kits for their daughters to make a difference.
Programs that connect up girls with working women engineers can make a tremendous positive difference here. Just meeting a woman who was able to make it through engineering school and get an engineering job can be a great encouragement to a young woman who finds attending mostly-male engineering classes intimidating. The NSF money that is spent on those sorts of encouraging activities addresses these sorts of passive injustices. While statistics proving their effectiveness may be hard to come by, you can talk to women who are now engineers to whom such things made their careers possible.
By and large, engineering is a profession that contributes to human flourishing. As mothers, women have historically done most of the work in contributing to the flourishing of the class of humans called children, and so it is no great stretch for women to contribute also in the more indirect way of an engineering career. I wish GoldieBlox well, and hope that in future years I may end up teaching some women who can fondly recall the time they discovered GoldieBlox and the Dunk Tank, and their lives were forever changed.
Sources: I learned about GoldieBlox and its founder, Debbie Sterling, from an article by Nicole Villalpando that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman print edition on Dec. 5, 2014. (Full access to the online article requires a subscription.) I also referred to the American Association of Universities website athttp://www.aau.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=14335for statistics on the NSF budget, and the GoldieBlox website www.goldieblox.com
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.