Not long ago at an Open Lab in Oakland, I was approached by a parent. Her daughter, who comes to our event regularly, was only interested in the sewing and art activities we offer. She and her husband were concerned, because they wanted her to learn to solder, to dive into electronics, to "do what the boys are doing because she can." Well, I replied, of course she can. But that's not the point.
Empowering kids is not just about opening new avenues of interest and opportunity. It is also about supporting and encouraging the interests they already have. Our sewing projects and art projects are not gender exclusive, and neither are electronics. In both our programs at Hacker Scouts, we approach any activity from a developmental point of view, and we see both boys and girls interested and enjoying them.
Our program is intentionally co-ed. We don't see any reason to separate boys and girls when there is so much to be learned from each other. Hacker spaces tend to be dominated by men, and while this is changing, Hacker Scouts is pro-active about having a balance between male and female mentors to set an example. As I told the parent I mentioned above, being exposed to new concepts or skills (even if a child does not participate) is beneficial. In fact, we often create threads between activities to support kids who may want to try an activity but are hestitant. For example, we have a girl who would always choose an art or sewing project, but consistently eye the electronic kits. We could tell she really wanted to try one, but when questioned she would refuse. After a couple conversations, I began to understand that she was intimidated by the soldering and the boys, for whom it looked so easy. So, the very next open Lab I offered a wire sculpture class that required soldering. I knew she would be into the art aspects, and I saw this as an opportunity to give her some experience with the soldering iron. It turned out to be a great lesson for many kids on soldering, and many went on to try their hand at soldering electronics. Including this girl, who had the chance to try a skill she wanted to learn in a context she was comfortable in. And the first girl I talked about? We got her to try her first electronic/LED kit by showing her how we could integrate it into her Halloween costume. It turns out, that once more girls joined the soldering table, they began to realize that the boys at the table had the same challenges they did.
But the idea of gender stereotypes is not exclusive to girls. Sometimes we come across the uglier side of gender stereotypes, and we address them head-on. Yesterday at an Open Lab, one of my Scouts (a boy) came up to me and said " I think it's sad that some people think something belongs to girls or boys. Sometimes I like things that are supposed to be for girls." I told him I didn't think anything is for "just girls or just boys" and that we can like what we like. I asked him if there was anything in particular that he was talking about and he admitted that he wanted to watch a My Little Pony episode on the iPad with my daughter on the couch but he thought people would laugh at him. I said "No way! My boys like My Little Pony too! They are Bronies!" Then I turned to the crowd and yelled "Raise your hand if you are a Brony!" and more than half the room (including my boys and several others) enthusiastically raised their hands. He was so happy to see he was not alone, that he was wrong about how he would be treated if he showed interest in something he thought would be considered girly. It completely changed his experience in that room. He could have been talking about anything, though. Even sewing. But through inclusive programs and supportive environments we are hacking those gender stereotypes and replacing them with balance, opportunity, and an appreciation for each other.