The GoPro, the Polaroid Cube, and why there aren't more women in engineering

October 5th, 2014

This is a response to a video my friend posted on Facebook.

Part 1: The GoPro

A coworker of mine once got a citizenship award at work, and along with the award came a prize: a GoPro Hero 3.

Honestly, I was kind of confused by the choice in prize. Granted, we are part of the Chrome Media team, but my understanding of the GoPro was that it's this ugly thing you strap to your head to record your EXTREME SPORTING ACTIVITIES:

Alright then.

Alright then.

"What a weird, ultra-niche camera to select for a general purpose award," I thought.

Turned out, though, I was in the minority – Dale and the other recipients were super excited to receive the GoPro, and my other prize-less teammates thought it was a cool, thoughtful idea from our management.

It did make sense, actually: Most people in Seattle love hiking and climbing and kayaking and skiing and all that stuff, and the GoPro fits in line with that. It's me who's the weird one, I who characterizes my outdoor interests as the extreme opposite of extreme. I like picnics, for example, or taking walks iff equipped with the right shoes.

So anyway, whatever, I concluded. I don't really take many videos, and I definitely have no interest in recording, or even watching, GoPro footage of mountain biking on extreme sidewalks.

So whatever, I concluded. This camera isn't for me. I'm just not into this stuff.

Part 2: The Polaroid Cube

The other day, I got a REALLY WELL-TARGETED AD from Facebook about the Polaroid Cube.

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 11.45.06 AM


I clicked the ad (if you've ever wondered, "Who actually clicks on ads?", it's all me, apparently) and AHHHH!! It's an adorable little real-life camera! It's a video camera thing that you can use to take casual videos with your friends!

What would I record? Oh, Photojojo has suggestions:

Capture the moment in wide-angle as you cover your morning pancakes with whipped cream and sprinkles or bring it to the park to make super-actiony videos of puppies, frisbee enthusiasts and those who are both.

But I didn't need the suggestions. I could put this thing in my purse and take videos with my friends at, like, our favorite tea place! I could keep a video diary on vacations! I could record Day in a Life videos and send them to my mom!

I ordered a Polaroid Cube that morning.

Later that day, I was taking a walk down the beautiful streets of Stockholm (I had the right shoes) and continued imagining.

"If had my Cube, I could record what I'm seeing here on this walk. Though, it'd be nice if I could mount it somewhere so I wouldn't have to hold it up the whole time. If only there was a good place to mount it while on a walk…

"Oh oh, I know!! The bottom of the cube is a really strong magnet. I could get a wide metal headband and attach it to my head. Maybe decorate it so that it looks like a giant bow."

Yes, I bought light-weight, durable action camera… that I plan to attach to my head.

Maybe I am into this kind of stuff.

Part 3: Women in Engineering

Why do I prefer the Polaroid Cube over the GoPro?

No, "prefer" is too weak of a word. To me, the Polaroid Cube elicits sheer joy. "OMG CUTE. OMG THINK OF THE POSSIBILITIES!" For the GoPro, nothing. Flatline. Total void of feeling, absolute 0 interest.

Why the stark difference? That's a complicated question.

Luckily, it's not the interesting point of this story.

I want to emphasize a very important difference:

I myself did not know these two things were true until seeing the Polaroid Cube.
I myself did not realize these two things were different until seeing the Polaroid Cube.

I conflated product, the GoPro, with concept, Action Camera on Head.

I see people making this same mistake all the time with girls and engineering.

We spend way too much time trying to fix the princess "problem." We're selling princesses to girls, spaceships/LEGOs/trains/race cars to boys, and we think "Gosh, of course boys like engineering. We're teaching boys to like spaceships. Let's teach girls to like spaceships to get more women in engineering!"

I want to to emphasize a very important difference:

Let's stop trying to force girls to put down their princesses. Let's instead teach girls that engineering is more than cars, space ships and video games.

Let's stop trying to force women to like GoPros, and let's make more Polaroid Cubes.

Part 4: Why Marketing Matters

You have to understand, I never liked physics. I got okay-ish grades in my courses but it was all dull, rote memorization to me.

Physics is important for space ships and cars and figuring out the trajectory of baseballs. Okay.

But on my walk, I started thinking, "Huh, that's a pretty small microphone. In a restaurant with a lot of people, I probably couldn't hear my friend very well on the other side of the table. I wonder how I could solve that."

Enter signal processing. Enter microphone design. Enter all this physics stuff that I swear I thought I had no interest in learning, and suddenly I wish I had paid more attention in class.

It's more than just the realization that I like cameras after all. The Polaroid Cube gives me a vocabulary and context for the physics problems I gave no craps about years ago. Without this context, I don't care at all about how a microphone works. With this context, I'm suddenly very interested. It gives me motivation to learn about this field that I honestly thought just wasn't for me.

Part 5: The Moral of the Story

Science is everywhere. Engineering is everywhere. It is not limited to gadgets and cars and space ships.

We don't have to get boys to play with Barbies or girls to play with train sets to get gender equality in technology.

If you try to tell me there's something in our DNA that makes boys predisposed to trains and girls to dolls, I could buy that. But if you try to tell me there's something in our DNA to make men and not women predisposed to a field as diverse and varied and omnipresent as engineering, I will not have it. Girls LOVE making stuff. This is pure marketing, plain and simple.

Let's give our little girls a vocabulary and context for engineering, since it's everywhere. Hair instead of LEGOs. Making dolls and dollhouses instead of trains and space ships.

When we make awesome technology for a diverse population, when we recognize and foster engineering skills in ways that appeal to a diverse population, diversity in the technology field will follow.


What Didn't Work

The GoPro website does feature pictures of women using the GoPro:

I do not believe this affects my feelings on the product.

Also, notice the Polaroid Cube is not just a pink GoPro:

Not gonna lie, this does appeal to me more than the grey. But still not enough to significantly sway my feelings on it.

The #1 Source of Untapped Engineers:

Tell me these are not feats of engineering:

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 2.04.35 PM

How is this different from LEGOs? You take a basic building block — strands of hair — group them and arrange them in creative ways, keeping in mind structural integrity, to create your vision. Then you take it all apart the next day and start over again.

Btw, as a woman who cannot do hair at all, these women are magicians. WELL DONE, LADIES!!

1 comment

  1. Katie Ly says:

    Hi, I am a sophomore at University of Washington that is currently taking CSE 154 web programming class. I saw on the class web page crediting you and a couple other former TAs for working on the labs and handouts for this class. I realized that your name was the only one that was hyper-linked so I clicked it and it lead me to your really cute and simple website! What really stuck out to me was this article about women in engineering as I find myself very fascinated in science and engineering fields.
    I found that I really do feel like girls aren't supposed to be interested in engineering fields and that guys in this field discredit girls or question our intelligence in engineering fields. This is very prevalent when working on group assignments and I think it really demeaning. I also found myself not caring about what I wear (not wearing make-up and/or wearing clothes that doesn't accentuate female features), especially to engineering classes, because it seems like people believe that an increase of "attractiveness" is inversely correlated to her intelligence. With this in mind, I intentionally don't dress nice (even though I have a lot of cute clothes! ) so I would feel like I would fit in the notion that girls in engineering fields are unattractive and weird: attractive and socially-acceptable girls do not have the brains or discipline to study engineering fields.
    I blame myself for letting society get the best of me in that I changed myself so I would fit in society's definition of girls studying engineering. I find that I have little confidence in myself, so trying to get into an engineering major has been very difficult to me emotionally. I really enjoy taking computer science class as I never enjoyed taking a class as much as I did when I took CSE 142/143. And because this is something that I truly enjoy doing, I thank you for posting this article because it was really uplifting to read and it gave me that extra push to pursue what I want to do. I have always questioned whether engineering was right for me because my grades are not competitive enough in comparison to students who were admitted in engineering programs. It doesn't help that I want to pursue one of the hardest majors here at the University of Washington, but learning about data structures (my favorite) is something I really enjoy doing! And because of this, I'm not going to give up. Thank you for bringing up my confidence with this very well-formulated article. I really do feel like I can go the extra mile :-)

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