Recently, support for women has become the norm in developed countries, and many individuals have realized and accepted that there is a gender discrepancy in STEM fields that should be resolved. While this understanding is very important, the approach used by some is problematic. While it can seem unclear as to what may put off or even be offensive to women in STEM, there are easy guidelines to follow to when working on gender-related outreach.
It’s important to regularly review and improve team outreach efforts; in fact, my own team benefited from reflecting on our programs, even when I felt that we were doing everything right. The logo of You Go Girl, my own team’s women inclusion program, is pink and gray and features a gear and a bow. I had heard some girls on our team comment that they felt uncertain about all of the feminine symbolism of You Go Girl; they cited the logo’s overemphasis of femininity. To address their concerns, I changed the pink to teal and removed the bow, and then I presented it to the other women on our team. To my surprise, some of the same people who wanted the logo changed voted to keep it the same! These teammates explained that they didn’t want to erase all of the traditional imagery, as there were (and are) girls on the team who do enjoy bows and the color pink.
In addition to the logo issue on my own team, I have witnessed some more egregious errors in other groups’ attempts to reach out to girls, even among well-known companies. For example, IBM’s former ad campaign “Hack a Hair Dryer” sought to appeal to women by asking them to “hack” hairdryers rather than, say, what IBM actually produces - computers and software. The campaign was definitely well-intentioned but missed the mark with many women in STEM who knew that they could succeed in reengineering more than beauty products. In fact, IBM is one of very few Fortune 500 companies with a female CEO, testifying that even women-led groups can make gender outreach faux pas. Furthermore, I’ve seen this “pinkification” ideology in places one wouldn’t expect. At a conference for women in STEM, I was talking with a woman who ran a booth, and she explained to me that she wasn’t sure how to draw more young girls to her robotics camp. The woman asked me, “do you think that I should have them add sparkles to the robots?”
All of these instances have compelled me to reconsider how FIRST teams and even tech companies should approach reaching out to girls. After all, with girls being so diverse in how they express themselves, how could a team connect with all them? The answer is actually pretty simple: relating to diverse girls requires diverse outreach.
Obviously, many women and girls alike still enjoy elements of stereotypically feminine lifestyles. These girls need to know that it’s wonderful to have varied interests - Carol can enjoy wearing dresses and learning how to code, and Alisha can love to build robots while also wearing a bow in her hair and jamming to Taylor Swift. Overall, “girliness” shouldn’t ever be seen as mutually exclusive to intelligence or engineering ability. Many teams are fantastic at doing this already. At the same time, FIRST teams also need to remember to embrace the other end of the spectrum. Girls who aren’t so enthusiastic about pink and bows shouldn’t be forced to just because of their gender.
In application, this usually means that teams should utilize both traditional gender symbols and also use gender-neutral imagery and outreach tactics. For example, after the You Go Girl logo debate, we decided to leave our logo unchanged. However, we allowed the girls on our team to choose the color of their poster to allow them a greater degree of self-expression. What other teams can do beyond measures like this is avoid excessive separation of the young men and women on the team and at camps or other outreach functions. For example, try to avoid giving certain team products only to girls or guys - my own team seeks to do this by requiring everyone to wear You Go Girl shirts - as equality is a group effort that shouldn’t be exclusive to any gender.
Additionally, it’s important for any team to have opportunities for members to learn about the team’s different branches. This is relevant to all people in FIRST but especially women and other marginalized groups. For example, many teams deal with the issue of women ending up on the business/outreach side in a disproportionate number. Women choosing to focus on these areas of the team is totally okay, but I’ve found that sometimes girls choose non-technical sub-teams due to fears of being inadequate. By having opportunities to experiment with building, programming, or working on CAD, students of all genders can still explore their engineering and robotics interests while also contributing to the team through business, graphics, outreach, and more. Additionally, the idea of low-pressure experimentation with STEM is a wonderful gender-neutral method of reaching out to younger age groups.
Finally, it’s important that your FIRST team continues to reevaluate its efforts and what can be done in the future. If your team is just beginning a gender-based outreach program or doesn’t have one yet, set a goal this year to have an event for girls or women in your area. FRC Team 2974, Walton Robotics has Outreach-in-a-Box kits that can be ordered from the FIRST Ladies website. If your team already has a strong program for young women, look at what can be done to refine it and expand it beyond your own area. Additionally, take it one step further and see how your team can support LGBT+ individuals in FIRST or better represent other minority groups. If you haven’t realized this yet, FIRST teams can have amazing, global impacts. What will your team’s impact be this year?
This blog was written by Jordan Love of FRC Team 1710. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.
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