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 that designs and develops the devices, games and apps that most of us cannot live with out? How cool to be the animator behind the next, great superhero(ine) movie? Heck, kids, we wouldn’t be able to even text each other without coding! It’s that cool! And, while we are at it, why are there not more female Transformers?

So the next time my daughter asks to play on my iPad, chances are I’m going to say yes.

(Got an hour to spare? Then watch the video from NEVCA’s breakfast with Sheryl Sandberg here.)

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8 Comments

  1. Ahhhh- another Sunday morning that you have me thinking… LOL 🙂

    I am with you about “screen time” as we call it in our house…I detest it, and should a 4, 5 or 8 year old be spending hours on an iPad because it might be the “key to her future”? At one time, there were no pilots or planes, car makers or computer manufacturers. I don’t think this is any different than when kids of the past needed to “learn” the skills of running a farm, work in manufacturing, mechanical engineering and now computer engineering. However, HR Managers, EMT’s and teachers are needed too. I didn’t hear the talk, but if Sheryl is simply advocating exposure to it, then it doesn’t matter to me whether they are a boy or girl, the key is – as with anything – moderation with a good dose of exercise which gaming has a stigma of not promoting (until the Wii). And of course, do they have an interest in it…I have found my son to be much more interested in “electronics” then my daughter. He – as a second grader – has already shown an aptitude for math and science in school and I can trace back signs of this to when he was an infant playing with blocks. I can’t tell yet with my daughter, but she has the same “rules” on screen time that he has. She just walks away from it much easier than he does. I don’t mind games like Angry Birds and Where’s my Perry because I can see the “science, engineering and strategy” in it (if I hit in the middle of the wood rather than the bottom will it collapse the tower? It reminds me of the toothpick bridge science project that many schools still do). However there are plenty of games that achieve this level of “critical thinking” (for an 8 yo I guess) without advocating violence which is my main pet peeve with games.

    Finally, another valid question Sheryl might be inadvertently asking is if my daughter was playing Doc McStuffins for 3 hours – would I limit her time the way I limit ‘screen’ time simply because it’s a video game? My answer is – if she behaves the way my son does when he has had too much screen time and has trouble breaking away then yes I would. She has been able to self-police herself with most activities she chooses, where as my son does not. And I like to make sure their “critical thinking” is interspersed with the quick thinking of sports and just a good healthy dose of exercise and fresh air…and the world outside our 4 walls.

    Did our mothers go through this? 🙂

    Reply
    • All great points, Anita. What’s changed with me is the dialog. There will still be limits with screen time. There will still be consequences for the shenanigans when time is up. I will still remove screen time as a punishment for bad behavior.

      What I have done is begun a new dialog with my kids about how things are made. When we are at home, when we are out.

      Yesterday, T was busy cutting out cardboard & taping it together. She created a holder for a sword she had made. Then she built a dog, taping together the heads & limbs so it could stand up by itself & move like a puppet. It was so cool and we talked through how she “engineered it” by using her smarts.

      Also, while out on my hot date with G at the Natick Mall, he was gazing with interest at the ceiling of the new part of the mall. This stimulated a long discussion about architecture, engineering, design and how computers are used to help. On the way to the mall, he asked me about what computer games looked like when I was a kid & this sparked a discussion about how computer design & animation has hugely evolved.

      I hoping these conversations could help to contextualize the games.
      Maybe offset the fascination with the game & encourage a fascination with how they are made?

      Reply
  2. bbb75

     /  April 7, 2013

    I wish I could find the article I originally read this in, but I can’t, so I’ll paraphrase. Computers are as essential to the survival and success of the modern child as hunting was to a caveman. It is ludicrous imagining a caveman telling his child that he’d practiced shooting his bow & arrow long enough and had to stop. Similarly we should encourage our kids’ attempts at engineering and coding. Games like Crayon Physics or Doodle Truck have a lot of that behind them.

    Reply
  3. GinaL

     /  November 21, 2016

    I disagree. Technology is so intuitive these days, you can pick it up at whatever age you want so why not help grow all those cognitive and physical skills that children won’t have the chance to develop once they are working in an office all day? Sandberg has an obvious interest in promoting i-pads but think about what they are doing to your child’s social capacity as well as leading to the kind of physical effects I and many of my colleagues are suffering in our 30s and 40s (back pain, slipped discs and sciatica, eye strain and visual impairment) (and we only started using computers at around age 20!). Worth a read: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cris-rowan/10-reasons-why-handheld-devices-should-be-banned_b_4899218.html

    Reply

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