It is a problem many women in STEM face. They share an idea, and their male colleagues ignore them. Or talk over them. Maybe even shut them down. But when it happened to 9-year-old Olivia Tappen on her brothers’ robotics team three years ago, she pushed back — and beat the boys at their own game.
The team’s coach just happened to be Olivia’s dad, Frank Tappen, so she asked if he could help her start her own team. And in March, the Pink Eagles — Olivia, Jaley Felty, Amber Clark, Camryn Ihrke, and Sidney Furge, now seventh-graders at Hartland Middle School in Ore Creek, Michigan — took first place in the international Wonder League Robotics Competition, beating 5,300 other teams and earning $5,000.
“If I had to compare the two teams, the girls are more collaborative, where they’re all trying to get buy-in or making sure that each person’s idea is considered, where the boys, it just seems like one of the boys will come up with an idea and he won’t listen to the others. It’s his way or the highway, so to speak,” Tappen said, comparing the all-boys and all-girls teams he coaches.
For some of the Pink Eagles, writing code to navigate robots around a fictional island of endangered animals for the competition meant having fun and learning a new skill. For others, it represented a step toward a career in science, technology, engineering, and math fields such as mechanical engineering or archaeology.
But all the girls have stories to tell of feeling left out or overlooked when they expressed an interest in STEM, and they hope that schools and society can improve when it comes to encouraging female students.
Olivia recalled a group project in school in which they were assigned to build a structure. The boys told her she had to be the group notetaker. The structure the boys tried to build didn’t work, so Olivia built it herself. The teacher noticed, and the boys didn’t receive credit.
“I feel like there’s a big gender gap thing, because the guys were raised up thinking they were better than us, and they still believe that,” she said.
“You like proving them wrong?” her dad asked with a chuckle. “Yes!” she answered.
When Camryn browses the magazine rack at Target or Walmart looking for technical science magazines, she said, she finds them under the “men’s interests” section, whereas the “women’s interests” area is filled with beauty magazines.
“I think that integrating more of the men’s interests like technical and like science stuff with the women’s would be more empowering to young girls who want to try technology but aren’t being told that it’s OK,” she said.
The middle-schoolers readily admit that gender equality is better now than it was in past decades. But research shows that the gender gap starts young in schools because girls don’t feel welcome in male-dominated fields.
So schools have to take the lead in changing this culture.
For example, Camryn and Olivia participate in the local high school’s women in technology club, which is run by a teacher who noticed that girls in her engineering and programming classes weren’t as involved as the boys because they didn’t feel welcomed by male peers. The club brings women speakers from the tech industries to talk about their experiences.
“We don’t have anything like that at the middle school or grade school level, which I wish we did,” Tappen said. “There’s a lot of girls that I think would love robotics, that I think would just flourish if they had something like that.”
The Pink Eagles have invited younger girls to their team meetings to encourage them to stay with robotics. Their suggestion is always the same: Go for it.
“My advice is not to be intimidated by your differences and to embrace them,” Camryn said. “Because soon, people will start realizing that women can do just as much as guys can.”