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Weekly Trend: Can Smart Design Promote Gender Equality Early On?

A 12 year-old girl recently noticed a trend in the games she plays with her friends—there was a clear gender gap in the characters represented in smartphone apps geared toward children her age.

According to the Washington Post, Madeline Messer, a sixth grader, asked her parents if she could conduct her own study, and her results say a lot about encouraging gender gaps at an early age. If developers don’t reverse the trend and make girls feel included, Messer says, she and her friends—along with millions of other girls—will eventually put the games down.

Messer downloaded the top 50 “Endless Running Games” from the Apple App Store and recorded the genders of the available character options. All but one of the apps offered male characters, but only 46 percent offered any female characters at all.

“Considering that the players of Temple Run, which has been downloaded more than one billion times, are 60 percent female, this system seems ridiculous,” Messer wrote in the Post.

Many of these apps will charge an additional fee for certain characters. Messer found that 90 percent of the apps offered boy characters for free and only 15 percent offered girl characters for free.

According to her research, girl characters cost $7.53 on average. Comparatively, she only paid $0.26 on average for each app. What message are app designers sending when purchasing female characters cost more than the app itself?

“These biases affect young girls like me,” Messer said. “That lack of girl characters implies that girls are not equal to boys and they don’t deserve characters that look like them…I do not want to pay to be a girl.”

Messer said that girls feel unequal and inadequate because standards about gender roles are introduced to them at an early age—in this case, the message is that girls aren’t as capable of success as boys are. Another study conducted by Edelman Berland might confirm that these ideals affect people into adulthood as well: 93 percent of men and 87 percent of women surveyed said that geniuses tend to be male.

Perhaps through edtech’s app designs, developers can help both genders realize their potential to thrive in STEM.

One app, Hopscotch, was developed to spark an interest for coding in both young boys and girls. Hopscotch teaches the fundamentals of programming in a simple way, and it was intentionally designed to have a gender-neutral appeal.

Cofounder Jocelyn Leavitt says there aren’t enough women in tech because girls aren’t exposed to it early enough. So she created a solution.

“My favorite story about Hopscotch is when I took it to a classroom, showed it to boys and girls, and asked if they thought it was designed for boys, girls, or both,” Leavitt told ReadWrite. “A boy said, ‘I think it’s universal,’ and a girl said, ‘I think it’s for girls.’ That’s exactly what we’re going for.”

While exposing young children to STEM subjects is important, they need extra encouragement through high school and beyond. In some areas, girls are empowered to learn in male-dominant environments. For example, four high school girls in Arizona became the first all-girl team to submit an app to a local competition. They created a safety and general information app for Gilbert’s Fire and Rescue Department and won Best Overall App in the competition.

Instead of focusing on quantity of features like the boys did, the girls said they spent time on quality in their app development. The team advises girls who are interested in coding to sign up for classes with other girls, like they did—that way, they will have more confidence in a class dominated by boys. The four girls graduated in the top four of their entire class, and they plan to study sciences and engineering in college.

Similarly, another high school in Massachusetts launched a program called Help Desk, in which students solve tech issues for teachers and other students. Help Desk allows them to get real-world experience to back up what they are learning in the Technology Innovation and Integration class at Burlington High School.

The program has recently pushed to recruit more girls for the program; there are now four. Social pressures cause girls to avoid STEM classes like this, and there is a clear correlation when looking at the ratio of boys to girls in each class.

“One big thing all teachers can do is continue to encourage girls in STEM subjects and help them see that they can and do perform as well as boys,” Mind Shift says. “Teachers may also need to help girls develop tough skins because if they want to continue in these fields they’re likely to continue facing discrimination.”

Still, women do face discrimination once they reach the point of careers in tech fields such as computer engineering. According to The New York Times, women feel underrepresented in and even pushed away from careers in the industry. For the ones that do make it, more than half leave their jobs by midcareer—twice the rate of men.

Society gets most of the blame for not encouraging girls to study computer science. But Lauren Weinstein, consultant for Google, told NYT there’s a simpler reason: “These guys are just jerks and women know it.”

NYT reported cases of assault and harassment against women in the field. Weinstein said that many female engineers often use male names and photos online—otherwise they immediately become a target. Some men think that the tech industry works just fine without women, and they’re not shy about hiding their feelings.

“It’s a boys’ club, and you have to try to get into it, and they’re trying as hard as they can to prove you can’t,” said Ephrat Bitton, director of algorithms at FutureAdvisor.

NYT concludes that the solution for gender discrimination is to change the culture from the inside. One software engineer, Ana Redmond, said that those who write code have power, but she wasn’t willing to take enough time away from her kids to “own the code.” So she quit her job at Expedia to start her own company that develops educational apps for children. She also teaches computer science at a major university and mentors female students there.

“For me, what worked best was changing the context, not conforming to it,” she said.

Danica Smithwick

As a member of 1776’s editorial team, Danica Smithwick spends her time telling stories and communicating with others. She is a Union University and Washington Journalism Center student who loves…