Debbie Sterling on Inspiring The Next Generation of Female Engineers (Transcript)

Debbie Sterling, a female engineer and founder of GoldieBlox, on Inspiring The Next Generation of Female Engineers at TEDxPSU – Transcript

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Debbie Sterling – Founder, GoldieBlox

I’d like you all to close your eyes.

Closed? Okay. Now, you can’t see me right now, but I’m actually riding a unicycle, juggling hundreds of balls. No, keep your eyes closed, though. It’s really great. But okay.

So close your eyes, and picture an engineer. Everyone got a picture in their head? Nod. Okay.

Open your eyes. Raise your hand if you pictured a guy sitting alone at a computer. Okay. Maybe kind of nerdy, pocket protector.

Raise your hand if you pictured a train driver. That’s a lot of hands.

Raise your hand if you pictured a young guy in a hoodie, maybe looks a little like Mark Zuckerberg perhaps.

Raise your hand if you pictured someone who looks like me. Okay. Not a lot of hands.

Well, if you didn’t raise your hand for me, I would like you to please get up and leave. No, just kidding.

If you didn’t raise your hand for me, it’s all right. I get it all the time. Usually when I tell people I’m an engineer, they look at me and they say, “Ha! No, really, what do you do?”

or they look at me and say, “Oh, whoa, you must be some kind of genius” or my favorite is when I told my mother I wanted to major in engineering, she said, “Eww, why?”

The truth is I’m a female engineer, and I’m a minority. Only 11% of engineers in the U.S. are women. So why does this matter? Why do we care? So what. Let’s just have the men do all the engineering.

Well, engineers are making some of the biggest advances in our society. They’re solving things like global warming, making medical breakthroughs, some of the biggest technologies that are changing our lives. These are things that we use every day as people that make our lives better.

And with half the population being female, we deserve to have the female perspective. It will only get better with the female perspective.

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But today engineering really is a boys’ club, and I don’t fit in. But I’m here today to share my story about how I discovered a passion for engineering, and I’m here to make a bold claim: I don’t fit in, but I believe that our little girls will.

So this is me when I was a little girl, aged six. I was a pretty normal kid. I loved ballet and drawing and riding bikes. I grew up in a small town in Rhode Island, aged six. Coincidentally, this is around the age where most girls start to lose an interest in math and science, this young. And it’s interesting, some people think, “Well, biologically maybe girls just aren’t as good as those subjects and that’s just the way it is, you can’t fight nature.”

Well, there was a study done very recently across 65 countries around the world where they tested boys and girls on the same science test. Around the world the girls out-performed the boys, but not in the U.S. What the study suggests is that it’s not a biological thing. This is a cultural thing. And this is our culture. This is what we grew up in as girls. The toy aisle, the perfect example of our culture, where we are taught from a very young age that we want to become princesses.

I remember when I was a little girl, adults would pat me on the head — well, actually I come from a Jewish family; so they would grab me by the punim and say, “Debbie, you are so smart, good for you.” And I remember as a little girl being so disappointed, wishing that they told me I was pretty. I wanted to be pretty, I didn’t want to be smart.

And by the time my senior year of high school rolled around, I was applying to college, and I asked my math teacher to write my recommendation letter. She said, “Okay, Debbie, what do you plan to major in? I will write it in the letter.”

And I said, “I don’t know.”

She said, “How about engineering? I think you would really excel in it.”

And I thought, engineering. I closed my eyes — and I pictured a train driver. I had no idea what engineering was, and I was way too embarrassed to ask her. I didn’t want to sound stupid. But I thought, “Ugh, no way, eww, engineering. That’s for boys. It’s intimidating and boring. And why would she ever think that a creative, artistic girl like me would ever like engineering. No way.”

But I went off to Stanford, which was a big deal. In my high school they actually announced it over the loud speaker. And when I got to Stanford my freshman year, I had no idea what to major in. And that message that that math teacher had said, “Engineering, you should give it a try,” it stuck in my head.

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And so I thought, what the heck, I’m going to take ME101, just give it a try because I couldn’t shake that advice that she had given me. And I was so worried that it was going to be my first F. I was terrified, but I went into the class and in that class I finally learned what engineering really was.

And to my surprise, we weren’t fixing train engines. In that class we got to invent and design things. We had assignments like make a catapult out of a soda bottle and a piece of string and five paper clips and a piece of foam core. It was so cool and so much fun. And in that class, I learned that engineering is really the skill set to build anything you dream up in your head, whether it’s a website or a mobile app, to a bridge, to a highway, anything. That’s what engineers build. And what an amazing skill set. How empowering to be able to build whatever you want.

But the problem was I felt kind of alone. I was always one of a handful of girls in my classes, and I did not fit in. In fact, only 20% of undergraduate degrees in engineering and tech and science are awarded to women so it’s a real problem. But I stuck with it. I loved the major, and I wanted to do it. That is, until I took an engineering drawing class. This was about halfway through my major and I thought engineering and drawing, this is going to be great. I love art. Finally, I’m going to get to draw.