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Episode 98: Tara Chklovski – Tech, toys, and the gender gap

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

It was a lifelong drive to push others to that led Chklovski to founding Iridescent, a non-profit that delivers powerful science, engineering, and technology education to empower underrepresented young people.

Focusing primarily on young women and their parents, Chklovski works to empower the parents who will have lifelong influence on their children’s lives as well as working with the young women in a capacity that allows them to create their own app and launch a startup that will benefit their communities.

Through its flagship programs Technovation and Curiosity Machine, Iridescent has grown a network of 3,500 mentors and more than 63,000 participants throughout the world and looks to to only get bigger.

 

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The binary gender debate

“Yes, men and women are different, but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn. It’s your own way of thinking that is the biggest limiter.”

It’s a powerful sentence, and one Chklovski’s entire career has been built around.

“Iridescent changes the way people see the world. You have a limited lense put on artificially put on by your environment, but there’s no reason you can’t take another one.”

So what is it we need to learn to change the way we view gender? According to Chklovski, curiosity is the big one.

“Curiosity is the main one, but it’s also the hardest to teach. It’s about being unafraid to tell the other person ‘I don’t know the answer, can you tell me more?’”

“When we ask questions it means we don’t know something, so we need to be comfortable acknowledging our own deficit. Only when you’re comfortable in your own skin will you be comfortable acknowledging the deficit.”

“Curiosity is valuable because you’re able to keep up with the times. What we don’t know is increasing faster than it did 20 years ago, so if we want to feel empowered we need to be able to ask questions,” she says.

Imposters or world leaders?

People don’t like admitting they don’t know things for fear of losing respect from those around them, but according to Chklovski, the complete opposite occurs when we openly address gaps in our knowledge.

"Gender plays very deeply into the fear of not being respected for not knowing something, so if you’re from an underrepresented community you tune out things because you might not think you have a role to play in that organization.”

“What people don’t realize is most people think that. At all stages in life you’ll feel like it’s not your place.”

Chklovski says the behavior adults model when playing with children are a perfect example of humans’ inherent desire to know everything.

“Adults feel like they always need to know the answer, when the right thing to say is actually ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out together.’ In a professional setting you’re expected to know things. It’s all about earning respect and people thinking they need to show themselves as bigger and smarter.”

It’s at this point that the role of Chklovski’s non-profit, Iridescent, comes into the picture…

Tech, toys, and the gender gap

Despite common belief that the gender gap in tech is a global issue, Chklovski says it’s a misconception far from the truth.

“In the US there’s a big gap, but in Asia, China, India and Eastern Europe it’s almost 50/50. Women in those countries are being encouraged to go into computer science because it’s a very powerful career,” she says.

“There’s a UNICEF study that goes deeper into this, and says where there’s a big external driving factor like poverty it’s all hands on deck. This means a family would want their girl or boy to go into the highest paying career.”

In countries such as the US where the gap does exist, the problem is now so historic that it’s unsurprising a lot of people’s ideas of what gender should and shouldn’t be are so entrenched.

“In the 1950s Sears started a catalog targeting working mothers who had less time for housework. The catalogs found if they made different things for girls and boys that they sold faster because there was less decision making.”

“Targeted marketing is very effective and rides on having money to spend, little time, and a desire to make their children happy. If children grow up seeing ads that say material things will make them happy then they take on a new identity.”

It’s here where the serious long-lasting damage is done.

“Girls clothes are all for practicing homemaking skills for when they’re older, whereas boys toys have no expectation they’ll be a firefighter or a soldier when they grow up. All of these little things have added up to tell a girl ‘This is the right thing to do.’ Boys toys are dynamic, they have a lot of physics in them, but girls toys are always static so they don’t get that sense of engineering.”

It’s easy to jump to conclusions and blame older generations, but Chklovski says that’s difficult when it’s just what they’ve been conditioned to believe.

“It’s complex because you think it’s the right thing so you don’t question it. It’s only when you see an alternative way of seeing things do you realise there are other options.”

What needs fixing

So where exactly does Chklovski see opportunity and where does she focus her energy?

“Girls and women need to build a sense of self efficacy – they need to build a voice. They have a valuable way of seeing the world and they need to know they can change it.”

“A very concrete output of that would be more women taking on leadership roles. There’s a lot of data to show men don’t hesitate when offered a leadership role, even if they don’t have any relevant training, but when women are offered it they tend to be very hesitant. It’s years of these built up experiences that has eroded their self efficacy,” she says.

“Even though there may only be a gender gap in some areas, the leadership gap is universal. That can only be changed by changing all the smaller messages that women aren’t good enough.”

Spreading knowledge on a budget

Gender inequality is a heated issue at the best of times, but Chklovski doesn’t have any time for the people bringing the heat, instead choosing to focus her energy on those who elevate Iridescent higher.

“The problem is so deeply rooted that our work remains very current despite societal changes in themes or fads. We didn’t pick a narrow mission because the issue is beyond that.”

“To go back to scale, you come up with innovation when you ask good questions. Something I focused on for a long time was how do you get a lot of people involved at a low cost, while still offering a high quality program that has a lasting impact? By asking such a broad question I was able to come up with a very comprehensive model.”

“One of our key strategies is large scale/low cost intervention.”

“We were one of the first online MOOC courses which was a big reason why we were able to go to so many countries. We were putting out high quality free content and bringing people together.”

Iridescent put out two programs – Curiosity Machine and Technovation.

“They’re sequential. The first one is Curiosity Machine, which changes the way parents view science and technology. Children emulate their parents, so you want to empower the parent very early on to not be afraid of these subjects. The hidden target is the parent, but the goal is working with the child.”

“We also have Technnovation, which builds on the same skills but centers around tech. If you have self efficacy that you can be an inventor or scientist, you can learn whatever you need to. It’s letting us show them real-world changes you can make with technology.”

Chklovski places a lot of emphasis on the ability to have self efficacy, a trait she says underlines so much of human behavior.

“It says because of your past experiences you know you’ll be successful at the new challenge. It’s also very domain specific, so you may have high sense of self-efficacy with editing videos, but not for writing. Only when you do a lot of hard challenges do you increase this. This is why the end goal is leadership.”

Elements of self-efficacy

Chklovski says there are several elements to self-efficacy. They aren’t all essential, but possessing several of them will greatly benefit a person’s chances of success.

Exposure: “You need some sort of role model who you identify with who has shown when they took the risk it worked out.”

Experience: “You want to make it easy for them to get started. In Technovation we’ve used a special language called App Inventor that makes it very easy for someone with no background in tech to make an app. The feedback is very fast and you can visually see elements click together which is motivating. The mentor gives that personalized feedback and you can have it from anywhere in the world.”

Energy: “We’re human beings with bodies so you can’t just view it as a brain. If you’re tired, hungry or sleepy, don’t start something new. As basic as it sounds, we didn’t get this in the beginning because we thought we were a STEM education non-profit running these programs. We’d get these children who were hungry so we realized we had to feed them otherwise it’s a no hands on program. Humans aren’t just little brains to fill up, so you have to be accepting of what comes with that.”

Keeping on keeping on

Addressing the gender gap is a far-reaching and complex issue, and one Chklovski now has a lot of experience navigating in a way that doesn’t get her down or feel impossible.

“I did have a period where I couldn’t take it anymore and had to get off of all social media. Now I’m not on anything because it’s was too hard to control the feed.”

“Our work isn’t easy so you need enough fuel in the tank to have this perseverance.”

“The filter I apply is ‘what can I control?’ and ‘what can I have an impact on?’ We’re having a huge impact with Iridescent so I want to change the world through that.”

Getting involved

For people who want to get behind young women in tech, Chklovski says finding what you’re really passionate about will lead you to the right destination.

“You have to choose something you’re passionate about, which isn’t easy to figure out. Seeing so many of my friends struggle to figure out what they’re passionate about is hard. It takes quite a bit of work to figure that one out.”

“Mentoring is hugely powerful. I signed up to be a Technovation mentor this time around and it’s been so inspiring to watch these little girls grow. The main thing they say in the beginning is that nobody bothers to ask them about how they feel. They then think they’re adult problems and that they’re not invited to share their opinions on them. The fact that an adult is asking how they feel about them is hugely empowering.”

“The way their eyes start lighting up is so inspiring. I would recommend it to everyone. It’s a huge amount of time, but very helpful.”

“Seeing how passionate these girls get when they’re seeing problems all around the world gives me a huge amount of hope, because in the next 20 years they’re going to carry that with them.”

“Seeing these young children embody these values makes me feel like we’re going to be okay.”

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