Pink Legos not being quite enough, a slew of start-ups, many of them founded by women, are attempting to motivate girls into lucrative and satisfying careers in the traditionally male-dominated areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
But while girls string together HTML instructions and tinker with circuits, are they learning the money management and fundraising skills that will allow them to run their own companies – or even just manage their bank accounts?
Women have traditionally lagged men in financial literacy and investing prowess, according to Annamaria Lusardi, a professor of economics at the George Washington School University of Business in Washington, DC.
“Knowing science is not enough for women,” says Lusardi, an expert in financial literacy. “You need a capacity to make good financial decisions.”
Confidence is the key to unlocking women’s potential in these areas, Lusardi says. She helps run annual studies testing financial literacy, science and math knowledge around the world. When “I don’t know” is included as an option, women pick that much more than men, Lusardi says. Yet in a test case removing that option for some respondents, women answered the questions and mostly got the answers right.
“We have to really show to women that they should take the plunge, because it is very important,” says Lusardi.
Try, Try Again
Debbie Sterling, who founded the building kit GoldieBlox, says her products teach confidence by allowing girls to fail. “It opens their minds to say it’s ok to tackle a problem even if you’re not going to get it perfect the first time,” she says.
Players can fit the toy’s interlocking plastic building pieces in many different ways, so they experience trial and error.
Storybooks accompany the set, featuring positive role models. The main characters, Ruby and Goldie, are purposefully not prodigies, but rather are B+ students who are really open-minded and willing to try, try, try again.
“There’s the boy-genius archetype in media that suggests that unless you have IQ off the charts, you’re not good enough. I think that archetype is really damaging,” says Sterling.
Supply and Demand
The goal of STEM play is to get children’s creativity flowing, and the founders of GoldieBlox and other programs such as Roominate have seen all sorts of inventions come to life.
The best of them identify some sort of need and figure out how to capitalize on it – the basic laws of supply and demand that drive all successful business.
The lesson to learn, says Lusardi: Think of how you can build something you can sell, and then creatively manage your resources.
With Roominate, a modular building system with circuits, players create rooms with functional lights, fans, furniture and other features. While the pastel-colored pieces are designed to fit together into rather domestic configurations, the company’s founders, Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, have seen customers take off from there. They develop play storefronts, lemonade stands and other businesses, which teach them mini-business lessons as well.
One GoldieBlox user took the kit and some paintbrushes and created a drawing machine, according to Sterling. She made original paintings with it that she sold, and then she donated all the profits to charity.
Another success story: Tampon Run, a free iPhone app designed by two New York city teenagers. It is an old-fashioned arcade game where the heroine uses tampons as weapons to defeat enemies. The app was created by students of Girls Who Code, a national non-profit aiming to teach computer programming to one million girls by 2020.
More wide-reaching is that many girls have graduated from Girls Who Code to paid internships in the community. “I think they are now comfortable making money,” says founder Reshma Saujani.