At the intersect between education and technology

Are We Designing Girls Out of Education Technology?

This week, a software engineer at Google was fired for writing a widely-derided internal memo, critiquing the company’s diversity efforts for ignoring the “fact” that women are just biologically different from men. The author of the 10-page memo claimed, among other things, that women are innately less competitive than men—and that these differences are “universal across human cultures.”

As damaging as it may be to perpetuate ideologies predicated on a belief that biology holds women back, the memo forces a tough and important conversation about the systems and motives that undergird our behavior. And, more importantly, what we can do about it.

Because while the demographics of the tech industry may reinforce the author’s notion in a world where our collective experiences make the theory easy to accept, it takes very little Googling to discover cultures that prove the memo’s author to be wrong.

Much has been written about Northern India’s Khasi tribe, for example, which traces ancestry through maternal—rather than paternal—lineage. In “The Why Axis,” economists Uri Gneezy and John List examined the Khasis in the context of a broader discussion about the structures and incentives that lead to inequitable outcomes, from the workplace to the playground.

More importantly, the authors shine a light on hidden motives or unexpected causes of suboptimal societal outcomes. In one experiment, auto mechanics charged a wheelchair-bound person more for repairs—not because of implicit or explicit bias, but because they assumed someone with limited mobility would be less likely to shop around. When the customer in a wheelchair announced he was getting multiple bids for the work, the pricing offered was identical to that offered to other customers.

It’s a body of work that may be especially relevant to an edtech community with the potential to shape norms that influence tomorrow’s workplace. But it’s easy to overlook if we don’t think purposefully about gender during a design process.

In an experiment with Tanzania’s Masai tribe, an intensely patrilineal society, Gneezy and List asked participants to choose between trying to win some money by successfully throwing a tennis ball into a bucket, or winning larger sums by playing the same game against another person. Half of the male participants chose the competitive option, while only 26 percent of women did. When the same exercise was carried out in the matrilineal Khasi tribe, 54 percent of women chose to compete, while only 39 percent of the men did.

The experiments disprove the central tenet of the Google engineer’s memo—that women are biologically wired to cooperate, not compete. They help us to understand the impact of culture on an individual’s proclivity to compete, identify reasons for gender differences in competition, and create an opportunity to craft cultures that nurture our cooperative and competitive instincts.

Last year, an all-girls team from Michigan called the Pink Eagles won our global robotics competition. Siena Molinaro and Ena Garza from McAllen, Texas won third place. Overall, girls made up 44 percent of the 20,000 competitors across 52 countries, and 35 percent of overall participants in the younger (6-8) age bracket.

Enthusiasm among girls for the competition wasn’t an accident. Early tests of our robots revealed that girls tended to view robots with wheels as toys for boys. As a result, we opted to hide the wheels—placing them underneath the robot’s body. It’s a seemingly minor aesthetic difference, but one—among many—with real ramifications for increasing the appeal of computer science for both boys and girls. Our design process also led us to give our robots one eye and three legs to make it look like nothing else on Earth. It’s not a bug, puppy or anything else that may appeal more to one sex than the other. With our robotics competition, we focused on solving a problem, rather than creating a battle bot-style competition, to attract a broad swath of students.

Yet purposeful design in education isn’t about simplistic choices like making Legos pink or exploiting what author Peggy Orenstein describes as “gendered play patterns,”—the assumption that girls will be more interested in building a Lego hair salon or cafe than a Millennium Falcon. It’s about focusing on storytelling, music, and games that appeal to both girls and boys. It’s about making sure children feel like they belong—and searching for data that might challenge long-held assumptions about their behavior.

Of course, it shouldn’t take the Pink Eagles or Khasis to show us that girls are as innately competitive as boys. Or a misguided memo to spark debate about how and whether, in the Silicon Valley, right-leaning views may be marginalized, ignored or unfairly characterized. We do better as designers and entrepreneurs when we create products that reflect aspirations rather than norms, and with the mindset that whether or not we change each other’s point of view, we will come away wiser from the debate.

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