We like to think of Debbie Sterling as a one-woman revolution. As an engineer and founder of toy brand GoldieBlox, her mission is to encourage a generation of girls to be inspired by STEM skills which will in turn become a catalyst for them potentially pursuing a STEM-skills job in the future.
With girls and boys being bombarded by very different messages from a young age about what they *should* be interested in due to their gender (think: the pink toy aisle for girls, the blue for boys) patterns start to emerge during the elementary school years which determine how many girls stay interested in science and math versus boys.
When boys grow up playing with toys like LEGO, building blocks and Duplo, they are learning basic engineering skills. While playing with dolls and Barbies are not entirely wrong, if that is the primary tool thrust upon girls, which subconsciously teaches them to put their self-worth in their physical appearance instead of what they are capable of doing, we have a major problem.
Thankfully LEGO are a brand that have included girls in their advertising and marketing for decades, but there have been few others…until GoldieBlox. Debbie Sterling was recently featured as part of the Science Channel’s ‘Science Super Heroes’ initiative for the month of March. And it’s not hard to see why! We had an opportunity to chat with her about her work, her passion, and why it is imperative for the STEM world to engage more girls at a young as these industries continue to grow at a fast rate.
Tell us what you will be sharing with audiences as part of the Science Channel’s “Science Super Heroes” initiative.
When I was studying engineering in college, there weren’t many women in my classes and all my professors were men. At times it felt lonely and I wasn’t sure if I should stick in the engineering program or not because it didn’t feel like I belonged. I ultimately found a really great support system with the other women in my group, which kept me motivated.
As part of the Science Channel “Science Superhero” initiative, I want to encourage other girls to pursue their dreams and be a mentor for those interested in STEM.
You have widely been considered a pioneer for what you have created with GoldieBlox, encouraging an entire generation of girls to get interested in basic engineering principles. Why do you think this is important especially today?
There’s a serious lack of women in professional STEM roles today. Only a small percentage of engineers are women–it’s something I’m passionate about changing.
I believe the key to getting young women involved in STEM is to make it fun and exciting for kids. The idea is that if we can reach girls at a young age and teach them that they’re capable of building and creating something new, they won’t feel intimidated by entering a male dominated field. It’s all about building their confidence when they’re young and reinforcing that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up.
In your TED Talk, you spoke about the stereotypical idea of what a scientist and engineer looks like – male. What do you think it will take for society, and the STEM world, to evolve on this issue?
My goal is to help close the gender gap in STEM by giving both boys and girls the tools they need for future success. It starts with us breaking down these gender stereotypes (in toy aisles, on TV, in movies, etc.) that happen during early childhood and engage children in STEM when they’re young.
Research shows that by the time students reach the fourth grade, a third of them have lost interest in science. By middle school, that statistic increases to nearly 50 percent. Other recently published research sadly shows that girls as young as 6 start to believe that specific activities are “not for them” because they think they’re not smart enough. We need to stop the cycle that’s reinforcing these stereotypes.
Can you share with us an experience from your own life, either in college or in your career that became a turning point for wanting to change the gender representation of the engineering world?
There are many moments that stand out. When I first began prototyping Goldie, the first girl engineer character, and building the business, the toy industry wasn’t receptive. I spoke to several people that told me it was a “noble cause” but it would never go mainstream and it wouldn’t sell. They all said boys like building, girls like dolls – and that you can’t fight nature. It was disheartening to hear, but I knew they were wrong.
The STEM world seems to be growing at such a fast pace that there aren’t enough people to fill the jobs becoming available, according to studies. Do you think targeting younger generations of girls will be a game-changer for the industry in the future?
Definitely. Research shows that 9 out of the 10 fastest growing jobs in the US require a STEM skillset. It is essential that kids today learn STEM skills and develop an interest in STEM in order to be prepared for the future of our world and even more importantly, be equipped to help solve the world’s greatest challenges that lie ahead.
What encouragement would you give to parents who want to make conscious changes in how they raise girls, not to just default to the typical “pink” toys, clothes and ideals?
It’s important to encourage your kids to explore what interests them and let them know there are infinite possibilities. If you are raising a girl, it’s ok if she wants to be a princess, but she should understand that she can build her own castle too. It’s not one or the other.
Who are some of your STEM heroes, and why?
I have several! Gwynne Shotwell (SpaceX), Kimberly Bryant (Black Girls Code), Reshma Saujani (Girls Who Code), Helen Greiner (iRobot), Simone Giertz (Roboticist), and countless others.
Anne Wojcicki, CEO, 23andMe also comes to mind. We first met at a conference a few years back. I was blown away by her work in STEM and its potential to change the way we collect health data. She’s very passionate about her work and an incredible role model for so many people.
Most students learn about Marie Curie, but do you think schools and colleges need to do a better job of teaching about more pioneer women in the STEM world?
It’s important for kids to learn about women in STEM, especially in their early education. In my case, I never considered becoming an engineer as a little girl. It wasn’t until my high school math teacher suggested engineering as a college major that I developed an interest.
Over the last few years I’ve started hearing from more teachers and parents that are focusing on making STEM inclusive (and fun!) in schools. We even have a GoldieBlox STEM curriculum that’s now used in elementary school classrooms around the country. It makes me feel good when a young girl writes to me to say she’s learning about STEM in school and wants to study science or become an engineer.
Even with all this progress, there’s still a huge opportunity, and need, to fill textbooks with great inventors, scientists and pioneers who aren’t white men. Marie Curie is a great example but there are so many more women who deserve recognition, and who will inspire the next generation. This is why the film ‘Hidden Figures’ was so wonderful – it unearthed a true story about women of color who changed the world through science. Every kid should learn about them in school just like they learn about Neil Armstrong and Albert Einstein.
A question we like to ask all our interviewees: what makes you a powerful woman?
I refuse to let rejection get in my way. When I was first launching GoldieBlox, I faced a lot of rejection from people in the industry. So many people told me that the product wouldn’t make it to store shelves and sell because girls only want princesses, pink and sparkles–they don’t want to learn about STEM. It was intimidating, but I didn’t let the doubts and opinions from others hold me back.