On Sheryl Sandberg, Daughters, iPads & a More Equal Future

I have always disliked computer and video games, but a recent comment by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, blew my mind.

Computer and video games are anti-social, violent, moronic, brain-sucking time-wasters, in my humble opinion. I have always limited which games my kids get to play on the computer, iPad or iPhone, and how long they play them. I find the way they become so absorbed in these games to be scary and disarming. I particularly dislike the maniacal, ugly creatures they become when you tell them “time’s up.” I am the anti-computer game Mom. Sorry kids.

But maybe I’m wrong.

Sandberg, author of the much-discussed book “Lean In,” was talking at a breakfast organized by the New England Venture Capital Association (NEVCA). With passion, grace and chutzpah, she discussed what’s holding women back in the workplace, how female entrepreneurs often get shot down by VCs who fear them having children, how women shouldn’t be criticized for being bossy. But, for me, the defining moment came when she was taking questions from the audience and a woman from RunKeeper stood up and introduced herself as a software engineer.

Sheryl applauded her, and went on to state that, to achieve greater equality in the years to come, we absolutely need more women software engineers and computer scientists.

“Give your daughters iPads,” she urged. “Encourage them to play computer games. Gaming is a gateway to coding.”

Businesses, governments, entertainment, education, communication, financial and healthcare systems all fundamentally depend on software engineers. Software engineers are, in essence, coding our future.

Today, the average software engineer in the US earns $90,000 a year, which is substantially greater than the average teacher, nurse, accountant, HR manager or sales associate. Software engineers are in huge demand. According to a Forbes article: “The BLS [US Bureau of Labor Statistics] expects a 30% increase in the number of software developers by 2020.”

So maybe I should be rethinking this whole computer gaming thing? For girls, says Sandberg, computer games are the best entry point to an interest in science and technology. And consequently, the route to a well-paid, much sought-after career where they can earn not only as much as the guys, but also reconfigure the potential for women at the companies and organizations that are redefining the future.

But how do we get from Angry Birds, Bejewelled and Where’s My Perry to there? How do we encourage our daughters to become more interested in computers, coding and science? Someone asked me my opinion on Twitter as we were digesting Sandberg’s words in real-time. How he could encourage his daughter? I scratched my head, thinking about my almost six year-old and her fascination with all things Transformers.

“Talk to her about how the things she loves to play with are designed and made,” I suggested, making it up as I was going. “From toys and computers, games, TV and movies, to iPads. Discuss how these things have changed substantially since when we were kids, and talk about the people who made it happen. Have her imagine what amazing things could be built in the future—even by her.”

It’s a pretty steep order, especially if your daughter doesn’t seem to have a natural skill or interest. A New York Times feature published this week examined this very topic, stating:

“Researchers say many factors contribute to girls’ reluctance to pursue computing as early as elementary school, including discouraging parents, inadequate resources for teachers and a lack of exposure. Studies have shown that girls imagine computer scientists as men working alone in a basement and can’t relate.”

It seems to me that computing and software coding could do with some major re-branding to make them appealing, even fashionable. How cool to be the person

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