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Can Matchbox Cars Help Solve The STEM Gender Gap?

Sabrina Rojas Weiss

When 100 elementary and middle-school kids are packed into any room, the volume level is something akin to a jet engine. But the squeals of glee and groans of disappointment coming from a conference room in downtown Brooklyn last Friday were well worth any damage to our hearing. These boys and girls were discussing how to make a little purple monster reach some candy floating in the air before him on their tablets and laptops, possibly becoming the STEM professionals the future will one day rely on.

At the front of the room, college senior Mina Stone-Taylor commanded their attention every once in a while to teach them a concept. “Clap,” she said. They clapped. “Clap.” Clap. “Clap.” Clap. “Clap.” Clap. “Clap.” Clap. “Clap.” Clap. “Clap.” Clap. “Clap.” Clap. “Clap.” Clap. Now, wouldn’t that have been easier if she’d just told them to clap nine times? she asked. You could see lightbulbs going on in 100 minds.

The game, from a popular app called Tynker, was teaching coding loops, and both boys and girls in the room were equally comfortable trying various strategies.

Stone-Taylor’s boss, Toni Robinson, founder of the Bedford-Stuyvesant–based nonprofit Digital Girl Inc., also paused the proceedings to remind the students of a chant they’d learned earlier in the day: “Girls have?” she prompted. “No limits!” the kids answered.

“And boys can be?”

“Champions!”

Are these kids blissfully unaware of the fact that by the time they’re teenagers, the girls are less than half as likely to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers as their male counterparts? Has no one told them that women make up only 28% of the science and engineering workforce in the U.S., even though they make up 52 percent of the population? Maybe. What we do know is that the children in that room were on the receiving end of some tireless efforts to bridge this gap.

Cars Are For Girls, Too
The children in the room, all from underserved communities in Brooklyn, were there as part of No Limits, an initiative Mercedes-Benz, Mattel, and the National Girls Collaborative Project launched on November 8, National STEM/STEAM Day. At parallel events in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, children gathered to learn about fighting stereotypes of what girls and boys can do.

The event included a video about Swedish race-car driver Ewy Rosqvist, the first woman to compete in and win the Argentina Grand Prix in 1962.

“They said I could never finish, so I finished first,” Rosqvist says in the video.

“This is all part of an initiative for Mercedes-Benz to showcase women trailblazers throughout history,” Lindsay Munson, a publicist for Mercedes-Benz USA, explained to Refinery29. It was, after all, Bertha Benz who created a proto-marketing campaign for her husband’s invention, the first automobile, by stealing it in the middle of the night in 1888 for a road trip with her sons.

In keeping with that spirit, Mercedes-Benz teamed up with Mattel to make a Matchbox version of Rosqvist’s 1962 220 SE Sedan, and then worked with NGCP to build a program around giving out 50,000 of the cars to young, impressionable girls. (The cars will be available in stores in December, and you can view the discussion guide here.)

“Research shows that gender stereotyping starts between the ages of three and five, and it also shows that it’s primarily environmentally associated,” Munson said.

A lot of that stereotyping begins when parents, caregivers, and educators give children toys to play with that align with the traditional assumptions that girls like dolls and boys like cars and tools. In another video shown at the event, first-grade girls gravitated toward what they called “girl” toys — a unicorn, dolls, a tea set — and said cars were for boys. But then after watching Rosqvist’s story, they grinned, picked up the model of her car, and changed their minds.

Playing with different types of toys is important, experts say, because those so-called “boy” toys often promote visual and spatial skills while the “girl” toys encourage communication and social skills.

“If children only play with one, then they are missing out on a whole host of skills,” University of Kent psychologist Lauren Spinner, Ph.D., told The New York Times last year.

From Playroom To Classroom
Of course, getting more women into STEM careers will take more than a toy race car.

“These cars, what they’re meant to be is a tangible reminder of this day,” Olivia Pavco-Giaccia, co-chair of the NGCP Girls Advisory Board, told Refinery29.

NGCP coordinates more than 42,000 organizations that work toward this mission, and for No Limits events, they chose local groups like Digital Girl Inc. to recruit students and lead the workshops. All of these organizations recognize that making girls of all ages excited about math, science, and technology takes a multifaceted approach.

Girls do just as well as (or better than) boys in math and science testing. And these days rarely are people out there explicitly saying, “Girls can’t do math and science,” or “Women can’t be engineers.” Still, somehow, girls are getting negative messages, particularly as they get older. A survey from Junior Achievement this year found that only 9% of girls ages 13–17 said they were interested in STEM careers, compared to 27% of boys the same age. Black, Latinx, and American Indian people are also underrepresented in the STEM workforce.

“It’s fear,” Digital Girl’s Robinson said of what’s turning these kids away from STEM.

She believes that boys and girls in underserved communities take in images of geeky white male “geniuses” working in STEM careers and assume that they don’t belong.

“They’re thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough,'” says Robinson. “If you don’t see it, you don’t know how to get into it.”

Robinson, a software engineer, started Digital Girl with her friend Michelle Gall because they were frustrated by the fact that they were so often the only women of color at their level in their workplaces. They started by teaching after-school classes in coding to fourth- and fifth-grade girls. Soon, because some of the schools they were in had no after-school options for boys, they decided to open their programs to all students.

Exposure to programs like this seems to have made an impact on some of the students at the No Limits event.

“A lot of people told me that I shouldn’t do math because I’m not smart enough,” 10-year-old Winter Daniel, a fifth-grader at Brooklyn Charter School, told Refinery29. “But I still push my way through, because I know I can do it. I don’t need anybody.”

Another 10-year-old, Jaceniah Quintero, also said she’s determined to defy the people who have discouraged her.

“When I was younger, I used to tell my friends that one day I would want to be a technology teacher or science teacher, because I really like those type of subjects, but every single day, they would say, ‘Oh, you’re not good enough for that. You’re not smart enough,'” the fifth-grader at Warren Prep told Refinery29. “I don’t care what people say about me, because I know I’m smart.”

Looking To Mentors & Bosses
Many theorize that a large part of the gender gap in STEM is a lack of role models that look like them in certain fields.

“When I was younger, I definitely did not picture myself as a science kid,” Pavco-Giaccia said. “Then I had an amazing science teacher who just had this way of talking about science that made me understand that it’s not something you can find exclusively in a textbook or on a whiteboard. It’s the study of the world that’s all around us. Then I had another great female science teacher and mentor in my high school, so those two women really changed my life.”

Pavco-Giaccia held those role models in her mind while becoming the only girl in the advanced science club at school and one of the only ones working in labs at Georgetown and Stanford after high school. After studying cognitive science at Yale, she came to NGCP to try to change that.

One of NGCP’s programs, called The Connectory, can serve as a directory for parents looking for ways to get their children involved in STEM, but it can also be a resource for STEM professionals who are interested in volunteering and mentoring young people. While kids can benefit from inspiring teachers and historical figures, young women in college may need more close contact with a person working in their field to encourage them to continue their studies into grad school and/or pursue a job.

“Hopefully, both women and men are willing to mentor students in the field,” Pavco-Giaccia said. “I think it certainly helps as a young woman to have a female role model to look up to.”

It also helps to have an employer who truly believes in you. A study of undergraduate engineering students found that during internships, women were assigned more menial tasks while men got to do the problem-solving assignments, all leading to an unsatisfactory experience for the women. This might be one of the reasons why 40% of women with engineering degrees quit or don’t ever join the field after graduating, meaning only 13% of engineers are women.

When Mina Stone-Taylor joined Digital Girl as an intern, she was a business major with very little interest in any STEM subjects. She certainly had never taken a computer science course.

“I was just so scared to try something new,” she told Refinery29, explaining that exposure really helped her allay her fear of working with computers. “We started with block coding, and then we started using HTML, like, you know, doing it, and then once I slowly got it, I started teaching it and then that made me even more confident.”

Just like Ewy Rosqvist, Stone-Taylor is showing little girls what’s possible.

“I think seeing a female teacher up there is one thing,” Stone-Taylor said of bridging the gender gap in STEM. “They’re not afraid, because they think, ‘Okay, there’s somebody like me that is doing it, so then maybe I can do it as well.'”

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