Only 12% of engineers in Australia are women. 11% in the United States.
That’s not just a statistical issue, but a tangible limitation on what modern society is capable of achieving now, and into the future. Engineering – if we can look beyond the cliches – is ultimately about meeting the demands of tomorrow, today. Engineering is innovation. And innovation is impossible without the perspective that allows the demand to be recognised in the first place.
There’s few better examples of that than the life and career of Debbie Sterling.
Sterling was a smart kid who never wanted to be called smart. She wanted to be called pretty. That was, after all, what her toys implied mattered most.
Nevertheless, she was smart. So smart, that when it was time to graduate high school, she had her pick of esteemed universities across the US.
Sterling asked her maths teacher to write her recommendation letters. The teacher agreed, but wanted to know what major she was considering. Unsure at the time, the teacher suggested she would make for an outstanding engineer.
She didn’t understand. When Sterling closed her eyes, and tried to picture an engineer, all she could imagine was a train driver.
Why should she consider engineering?
This question is the reason engineering, and indeed all STEM fields, don’t tend to see high representation rates from women in the Western world. It’s not that the field isn’t of interest to women. It’s that women often aren’t made aware of why the field would be of interest to them.
For girls to recognise the value in lending their perspective to engineering, the perspective on engineering itself must change first.
That change, Sterling realised, would come through the way they played.
While at Stanford, Sterling was tasked with an assignment that required her to draw in perspective. She didn’t have the skills to complete the assignment to her teacher’s satisfaction however, and it almost brought an end to her career before it even began.
Years later, she finally understood why she had struggled with the task, while her mostly male colleagues had made it look so easy.
According to certain research, spatial skills tended to be higher in children who played with construction sets such as Lego. Lego and its competitors had been marketed for boys almost exclusively since launch.
So what if, Sterling posited, a version was produced for girls?
Quitting her job, Sterling commenced work on what would become GoldieBlox, a construction set paired with a storybook (now also an app and a Youtube channel) in which the engineer character Goldie builds contraptions that readers can then create themselves with their building kits.
Initially ignored by toy developers, the product launched on Kickstarter in 2012 and met its funding goal in four days, with 20,000 units shipped out upon completion. Today, GoldieBlox is available in 6000 retailers worldwide.
Goldieblox is fun, inspirational, and establishes engineering as a creative practice rather than a 9-5 boys’ club.
It’s not hard to imagine a similar concept working across not just other STEM industries, but all other industries where gender disparity proves an issue.
In the end, it’s up to The 8 Percent – people with courage, tenacity, and the will to say “just because it’s always been this way doesn’t mean it always has to be this way” – to make that happen if we want to see a world where representation isn’t seen as just a gesture, but a necessity for any business or industry that desires excellence.