Children's books must take the lead in promoting tech diversity

Children's books must take the lead in promoting tech diversity

Your five year old can code better than you.

In 2014, it became compulsory for kids aged 5+ to learn coding, alongside English and Maths. We’re living in a digital age, and it’s important kids are taught to be creators, not just consumers, of tech. Computer Science is the top paying degree and coding jobs are growing at 2x the national average. By 2020 there’ll be 2.3 million NEW digital jobs that have never existed before - and over half of the jobs that require coding aren’t even in software companies! Coding is a universal language that we need to know. But, there’s a problem.

There’s no diversity in tech.

Over the past decade, the number of girls studying computer science has decreased. That’s weird - it’s one of the most innovative, exciting and lucrative industries (think 3D printing prosthetic limbs and PokemonGo). There’s a huge diversity issue: under 12% of the UK tech industry are women or BAME. It’s not just tech that’s failing to attract girls and underrepresented groups, but the whole of STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering + Maths). That's rubbish. 

We can nurture a passion for tech using stories.

So I decided to make stories about Detective Dot - a nine-year-old coder and agent for the Children’s Intelligence Agency.

Dot codes her selfie stick to release deadly farts when in enemy hands… and she can explain how the code works too. Available as a paperback and ebook, Dot is an adventure story, with extra computer science info contained in a Children’s Intelligence Agency report in the back pages. I toyed with integrating this info into the story, but after lots of user testing I decided to tell a really strong story, and have the info as a bonus for the kids who wanted to find out more. This made Dot’s world accessible to kids of different abilities - and parents and teachers. Beyond the book, readers can join the CIA and receive a personalised membership pack in the post including STEM-based CIA missions. About poo.

Citizen science offers a new approach for publishers.

Toilet humour appeals to kids of all genders, ethnicities and creeds. It’s an excellent tool for learning - in terms of getting a child’s attention, toilet humour is basically gold dust. Pooey gold dust. We have CIA agents in over 30 countries carrying out top-secret missions. Our activities cultivate critical thinking and STEM, and complement the computer science curriculum.

Missions include creating an Emergency Poo Plan (for renewable energy), building new CIA gadgets (design, electronics and programming) and investigating Homework Crimes (analysis of global datasets - hours of homework + happiness + educational standards). Our approach is inspired by ‘citizen science’, helping kids to engage with real-world data and investigation in a fun and meaningful way.

I’ve noticed some interesting issues with diversity and publishing along the way.

1. Publishers are exacerbating the problem with ‘received wisdom’ rubbish.

We spoke to a lot of editors who took one look at Dot and presumed it was ‘for girls’. Apparently the golden, unquestionable, everyone-knows-this rule: books with female leads will only be read by girls, whereas books with male leads engage boys and girls. Couldn’t we at least have a male lead too, they implored? Erm, no! It’s a circular, backward argument - if everyone follows this rule, nothing will change. Boys need to engage with strong female leads as much as girls do. We made sure our cover would appeal to as many boys as possible through extensive user testing.

2. Mass media has a lot to answer for

Stories help kids understand themselves and the world around them. International stats are terrifying when it comes to modelling a world. I previously worked in a London primary school, where over 70% of the kids were BAME. These kids never identified as the leaders, coders, or engineers of tomorrow, and they were rarely represented in their stories. In cartoons, apps, films, or books, 73% of characters are white, and male characters are twice as likely to take the lead. With kid’s media skewed like this, it’s no wonder research shows kids as young as four are influenced by gender stereotyping - 80% of boys aged 4-6 choose engineering as a desirable profession, compared to 20% of girls. If we want to change this, we need to change the messages in mainstream stories.

3. When kids think critically about diversity, they have really interesting stuff to say.

We run school workshops where kids collect data on the diversity in their books (gender, ethnicity, characteristics, roles). As well as data handling, this teaches kids to critically think about everyday images, and it highlights less obvious issues around stereotyping, like the gender of animals and talking objects (mostly men!), or the characteristics we use to describe different leaders. We’ve discovered female characters are described as ‘caring, kind, helpful, sweet’ - the males are ‘heroic, brave, adventurous’. Why aren’t there stories about girls who are ‘sporty’ or a ‘joker’? Why aren’t there stories about boys who are ‘thoughtful’ or ‘kind’? This leads to really interesting group discussion - a seven-year-old arguing that always showing boys as being strong leaders is unfair as it puts a lot of pressure on boys to look or act a certain way, or a young girl wondering if everyone who works at Disney is white.

Here’s data from a workshop taken from a North London primary school in November. 44 ‘agents’ analysed 181 characters.

  • 117 men (64.6%)  60 women (33.2 %), 4 other (2.2 %)
  • Adjectives for male characters: Heroic, brave, adventurous, generous, cool, hard-working, funny, Joker, reliable, angry, stern, depressed, evil, weird, naughty, devious, silly, sporty, secretive
  • Adjectives for female characters: Open-minded, thoughtful, caring, kind, respectful, helpful, sweet, relaxed, persuading, snappy, bossy, argumentative, jealous, horrid, sneaky, proud, bad-tempered, beautiful, posh, mom-like, stays-at-home

Could Detective Dot beat James Bond in a duel?

Yes, because without W, Bond can’t code, he probably has sloppy online security, he doesn’t have a sidekick Drone, or a farting selfie stick, and he’s not even an OAA* of the CIA.

*Older-Aged Agent