Alice Brooks can pinpoint the moment her future career in engineering was set: as an eight-year-old, she asked her dad if Santa Claus would bring her a Barbie Doll.
“He said no,” Brooks laughs. “And instead, I got my own saw. And so I started making dolls and dollhouses out of wood and nails.”
How young are we when we start imagining our livelihoods? Brooks, who credits her childhood of creative and constructive play as the inspiration for her future in engineering, thinks it’s probably a lot younger than most people think.
The American daughter of an Australian expat, Brooks visited Brisbane last week ahead of the national launch of her product Roominate, a constructive, wired building toy marketed completely toward young girls aged six to twelve.
Roominate is designed to get girls excited about fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM). The idea takes the traditional concept of a dollhouse and knocks it down, so girls have to build it up from scratch – from the structure, to the furniture, to the wiring.
“It’s giving them that same play that they already know about, which is playing with a dollhouse, and completely changing it around,” Brooks says. “Because then it’s all about them designing it, and deciding all the little details that go inside, actually building the whole thing, wiring it up with real circuits.”
“So they’re learning really important things like spatial skills, hands-on problem solving skills. They’re really expanding their creativity, all while playing with a dollhouse.”
As an engineering undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brooks was keenly aware of how few other women there were studying her degree. When she moved to Stanford University to complete her Masters, the gap only widened.
She bonded with Bettina Chen at Stanford, one of the the few other female students, and discovered that Chen too had developed a love for construction and design early in life, while playing with her older brother’s toys.
“We were just two of very few women in our classes, and that got us talking about why we chose engineering, and why our female friends hadn’t even considered it,” Brooks says. “And what we really thought the difference was, was that we were both inspired by things we played with when we were younger.”
It led the two friends, who graduated with their Masters in Engineering in 2012, to develop Roominate. Brooks says the toy has since been welcomed in the U.S. because its open-ended nature gives girls limitless construction options.
“The best part is how creative they all are,” Brooks says. “We get pictures all the time from our customers: we’ve gotten things like the Golden Gate Bridge, with lights along the bottom; car washes with spinning brushes; rocket ships; huge mansions; the other day we got a homeless shelter with a soup kitchen, which was adorable, and a gymnastics studio.”
“It’s really all about their creativity, and I think it’s exciting to see how proud they look in their pictures with them. It’s a whole window into what these girls are doing.”
But how much influence does a toy really have, when a young girl’s ultimate career choice might not be for years, even decades, down the line?
For Brooks, it’s an incremental process: the earlier young girls are exposed to STEM fields, the earlier they can start using that knowledge and deepening their interest.
“Teachers were telling us one common pattern they found was that as soon as circuits came out in the classroom, the boys were running to the front and getting excited and the girls were hanging back,” she says. “And it was because boys had played with those sorts of things at home.”
“And, see, that already is skewing things. So I think it starts as early as possible.”
As Roominate is rolled out in Australia, the problems it seeks to overcome are unfortunately just as well-established in our country as they are overseas. A 2015 OECD report on gender equality found that less than one in twenty girls among OECD member states (including Australia) consider careers in STEM. The steady lack of female representation in STEM jobs, which are traditionally high-paying, is undoubtedly a contributor toward the record high 18.8% gender pay gap.
“Girls are just not choosing to head into careers or do subjects that allow them to have careers in STEM,” says CSIRO Manufacturing Director Cathy Foley in a recent interview with the ABC. “And when you think of the way the world is going, technology-related career choices and opportunities are really where the future is.”
“[Women] are just not going to be in a position to be competitive,” she says.
A lack of diversity in STEM does not just lead to a difference in earnings, Brooks argues. It means that women are not able to play a driving role into the innovation of one of our most dynamic and fast-growing industries.
It also means that female students entering their studies have fewer women leaders in the industry to look up to.
“I think it’s a little hard, not having as many women in a field, because it can be a little discouraging at times,” Brooks says. “I think it can make you question whether you belong there or not, even when you really do belong there.”
“At every step along the way, we’re losing women, and I think that’s a huge problem because all of this new technology that’s getting invented for men and women to use, and most of it is being developed by men.”
An awareness campaign called No Gender December, which warned parents that giving daughters toys like Barbie Dolls can perpetuate gender stereotypes and lead to pay inequality, was notably ridiculed last December by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
“I certainly don’t believe in that kind of political correctness,” Abbott said. “Let boys be boys, let girls be girls – that’s always been my philosophy.”
With trepidation, I ask Brooks what she thinks parents should do if their daughter asks them for a Barbie. Refuse? Burn it? Explain very seriously that they have higher hopes for her future than what the lifestyle of a Barbie Doll can offer?
Surprisingly, no. “I think they should buy it for them!” Brooks says. “It’s not about one toy being better than the other.”
“I think it’s about giving girls as many options, and letting them be exposed to as many different things as possible, so they can really choose what they like.”