Ever since I embarked on this venture of creating engineering toys for girls, I’ve had quite a few people ask me the same question: “Have you considered the possibility that, uh, girls maybe just aren’t ‘wired’ for this kind of thing?”
I find this a strange question to pose to a female engineer (unless you think she is some kind of freak of nature). I don’t think I’m really that much of an oddball, although I do happen to have abnormally small hands (99th percentile). High five.
Nevertheless, I’ve taken the question to heart and interviewed some Ivy League neuroscience professors to get to the bottom of it. Here’s what I learned:
Whenever this topic comes up, the big thing everyone cites is that boys have greater spatial skills than girls. This refers to a famous study by Vandenberg & Kuse in the late 70’s, where they found boys outperformed girls in mental rotation of 3D objects in space. People argue, and I’d tend to agree, that spatial skills are an important factor in becoming successful in engineering. However, here’s the CATCH… There have been lots of other spatial skills tests done where girls and boys score the same. These tests aren’t so famous. So researchers keep using the same old Vandenberg & Kuse test over and over again so they can be sure to get published. This means the literature overestimates the size of the sex difference. While there may be a male advantage, it is not as big as people claim.
Furthermore, studies show that with practice, girls can develop the same spatial skills as boys. And here’s the kicker: studies also show that participants who performed better on spatial skills tests played with construction toys growing up. Bingo! We’d like our toys to help girls develop those spatial skills.
But enough about spatial skills. I don’t know why everyone harps on spatial skills as being this mission-critical factor in determining potential success in engineering. There are so many other skills that come in handy when it comes to studying and working in engineering. For example, even knowing what engineering is would be a nice start!
Beyond that, I, for one, have found that my skills in empathy have aided me in designing solutions that solve real people’s problems.
What about you? All you fellow engineers out there…what skills have you found to be useful in your engineering careers? What skills can GoldieBlox start instilling in young girls?