The Producer Chronicles, Part 2: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes to Mindfully Create a Diverse Kids App
By Sandhya Nankani and Kavita Ramchandran
When we started working together on the app HangArt: Play Hangman, Draw Pictures, Tell Stories, we quickly realized that one of the biggest things we had in common is that we are both mothers of young girls. Both our daughters are six years old. They are not only emergent readers and writers, but also full-fledged dreamers. In their worlds, anything is possible.
As creatives and as mothers, one of our mutual goals throughout the development process was to create an app that was mindfully diverse. We both agreed that depicting young girls in non-stereotypical ways–i.e. breaking down gender stereotypes–would be a key quality of any app that is committed to diversity.
While our daughters are at an age where they can still imagine themselves to be anything, they are also at an age where they are most susceptible to gender stereotyping. Studies show that during childhood girls are four times as likely as boys to be told to be more “careful” and that girls are conditioned to be fearful and to avoid risk early on in life.
Studies also show that while there is no difference in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) ability between boys and girls, a large divide in perceived competence starts as early as age five. The reasons for this are many and include:
* Stereotypes that boys have a more innate STEM ability
* Different kinds of socialization based on gender
* At very young ages, children receive gender-specific toys that promote STEM skills such as building or spatial reasoning more to boys.
The outcome of this divide has resulted in the “STEM gender gap” where women hold only 28 percent of STEM jobs.
HangArt contains 200 K-3 sight words and original illustrations of each one. Kids see the illustrations revealed during gameplay (every time they guess a letter correctly when playing hangman). These illustrations are also saved in their word galleries where they can draw their own interpretation of the word. So, in a way, the diverse role models, skills, behaviors, and representations of girls that we chose to expose kids to even in something as simple as a hangman game matter. They would not only be embedded or imprinted in their young mindsbut also serve as a blueprint for their own drawings.
We spent many hours discussing and deliberating how to represent each of the words in HangArt so that they could push the boundaries of perceptions and stereotypes around gender, specifically girls. Here are some of the choices we made to and how they turned out in final form.
For the words boy and girl, we created super hero characters. Girls need to see themselves as superheroes just as much as boys do. They are mighty too. They are adventurers too!
We wanted to show a tall girl. We want to see tall girls walk straight and proud in the world. Tall girls don’t need to feel embarrassed or slouch.
We believe that pretend play belongs in childhood just as much to boys as it does to girls and that it is the foundation of 21st century skills such as critical thinking, communication, curiosity, and creativity. We choose to show a young explorer who could either be a boy or a girl.
We chose to depict a tinkerer, a maker, a girl who doesn’t need especially girly Legos to play and create; whose robots are the stuff dreams are made of. (We are curious to hear stories about what kids will draw when they are prompted to illustrate the word make.)
We chose to show a woman architect, someone engaged in a STEAM career, working collaboratively with a diverse group of colleagues.
We thought long and hard. We are bombarded by princesses in movies and as terms of affection and a Harvard study as recent as 2015 showed that adolescents still prefer men in leadership positions. So how about a strong, dynamic leader of antiquity–Cleopatra? She was not just known for her beauty but also, if not more, for her intellect (a scholar of her time, she spoke nearly a dozen languages and was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy).
Illiteracy amongst young girls and women remains a major problem in the world today. 20% of children aged 6–14 are still not in school and of the 774 million adults (15 years and older) who still cannot read or write, two–thirds of them (493 million) are women. For the word school, we celebrated the education of the girl child.
We reinterpreted Rodin’s The Thinker which can be found all around the world. To borrow from Rodin’s language, "What makes our Thinker think is that she thinks not only with her brain, with her round eyes … and her pursed lips, but with every muscle of her arms, back, and legs, with her curled fist and gripping toes.”
LIKE A GIRL
We may not be able to break down pink-blue stereotypes with a single image, but we found some opportunities to reinforce the #LikeAGirl message.
You can WIN #LikeAGirl
You can RUN #LikeAGirl
These are just a few examples of some of the image choices we made when it came to representing gender, and specifically girls, in HangArt. [Another post will follow where we discuss the representation of young boys and men. And you can read Part 1 of this series here.]
About the Authors: We are two creatives and mothers. Sandhya Nankani is founder of Literary Safari and the creator and producer of HangArt, an award-winning IOS/Android literacy app. Kavita Ramchandran is the illustrator and designer behind Make Believe Studio who created over 200 original illustrations for HangArt on an iPad using the same custom drawing tool that kids get to use within the app to create their own drawings of won words.