In the 2nd of our Women In Tech series we speak with Adriana Moscatelli, the founder of Play Works Studio. Play Works Studio develops science education games for boys and girls, with a strong focus on getting girls to develop a passion for science and technology. Speaking with Adriana, it becomes clear just how strong this focus is, and how passionate she is about developing the conversation around women in tech.
With over 15 years experience in software development, she’s worked with companies such as Microsoft, Nokia, The Pokémon Company International, Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast and Whirlpool. This gives her a wealth of experience to draw upon, and we were fortunate to be able to pick her brains about her own experiences as a woman in tech, and some of her ideas around how to address the gender imbalance in technology and startup industries.
4 years ago you started Play Works Studio. Can you tell us a little about the company and what you do?
At Play Works Studio we believe in equal play and equal fun! We develop science games for girls and boys and our mission is to encourage children, especially girls, to discover a passion for science and technology while having fun. I wholeheartedly believe that play should be equal and that girls and boys should be encouraged to play and learn together.
It is only when we teach kids that we all have the freedom to explore our own interests and to choose our own paths that we will begin to shape a more equal world.
Why do you think it’s so important that kids learn code from a young age?
The idea that children should learn to code is not new. Back in 1987, Seymour Papert invented what later became the theory of constructionism in a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. We all think of Papert as the father of the Logo Turtle programming language, which was conceived in the 60s to teach programming concepts to children. Seymour Papert makes the point that if technology is ubiquitous in classrooms there is actually more socialization and that the technology often contributes to greater interaction among students and among students and instructors.
“Learning to code is as useful and fundamental as learning math and reading.”
I believe that this is even more true today because the “internet of things” and mobile devices are available in classrooms equipped with high-bandwidth wireless connectivity. Papert’s dream, you might say, is now a reality.
I fully support the idea that children must learn how to create technology instead of just consume it. Learning to code is the first step. It is as useful and fundamental as learning math and reading.
When speaking about Play Works Studio, you mention that you want to encourage boys and girls – especially girls – to learn to code. Why the emphasis on girls (which we wholeheartedly agree with, just to be clear!)?
Research shows that in the United States children associate boys with math and science as early as first grade. The research also shows that positive early experiences with computer programming lead to equal success among girls and boys. Our own research with Robiis showed that 6-year-old children held stereotypes associating robots and programming with boys. But a 20 minute lab intervention with Robiis, and a 3 week program at school with Robiis, can change girl’s motivation and efficacy with robots and programming.
When girls have positive experiences that involve programming they are more likely to express an interest and perhaps pursue a career in science and technology. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that in the United States, women with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) degrees earn on average 33% more that women with non-STEM degrees. Furthermore, the gender-pay gap is narrower for women with STEM degrees than for women with non-STEM degrees. If we want to start narrowing the gender-pay gap we should start by encouraging more women to pursue careers in jobs with higher salaries, like engineering and computer programming.
There’s no doubt women in tech are the minority – in your experience, what reasons can you see for this imbalance?
The research is clear: girls lose interest in STEM at a early age because societal pressures tell them that science and technology are not for them. Once they lose interest, they avoid activities and experiences that help them develop skills which may lead them into a career in science and technology.
We know, for example, that spatial reasoning is an important skill in the development of math skills. Unfortunately, girls are less likely to play with building toys and vehicles, which are a great way to develop spatial reasoning skills.
For the few women who pursued careers in STEM despite the societal pressures, there is an additional challenge when entering the workforce. Research shows that in order for a group to feel that they are equally represented they need at least 40% participation. Very few CS schools and certainly very few tech companies have that kind of participation. When you are a minority, it is natural that your opinion is less likely to count, not because people are mean but because it is more likely that the majority will end up casually discussing things that are of interest to them and not you. Once you feel that you are not important, you are more likely to disengage and drop out.
But, examples like Harvey Mudd College have set a standard. It is possible to engage more women in Computer Science through mentorship and a willingness to take action to increase participation, like separating the intro to computer science class into two groups: the people with programming experience, and the people without programming experience. In this scenario, students end up interacting with classmates who have the same level of (or at least more similar) prior knowledge about programming. Guess which class would most of the women attend? Today Harvey Mudd graduates 50% women in computer science at the undergraduate level.
It is possible to change.
And when did you first (if ever) feel as though there was resistance to you progressing in your career based on being a woman?
When I worked in tech and gaming I didn’t quite realize that my career was progressing slower than that of men. It wasn’t until I started reading the psychological research, as I started Play Works Studio, that I fully understood that I, and all women in tech are progressing slower, as the statistics show.
What specifically do you think men in the tech and startup industries can do to help address the issues facing women?
I believe that people need to be willing to try a few things that may not feel natural. In the past, I wasn’t very attracted to the idea of segregating women from men or girls from boys, but after having conducted my own research and studied research from others, I believe that at this point in history it is advantageous to encourage women to participate in women-only groups.
Entrepreneurship, science, engineering, leadership, all of these areas have a deficit of women. Because of that reason I think that it is important to encourage the few women who participate in those areas to be active in groups, events and projects in which there are at least 40% women so that they can have an opportunity to feel what it’s like to be in a room where they are equal or the majority (and thus feel “normal”). I know that it is hard to find enough women to start women-majority groups but that doesn’t mean that it is not worth organizing them and having progressively lager goals for participation. Recruiting and retention strategies are key and so is the education of the workforce in that the lack of female participation is a problem. It all starts with awareness of the issue.
You have experience working in large companies such as Amazon and Microsoft. What are the major challenges for you now that you run your own startup?
The statistics are against me as a female founder. Sometimes I think that it is better if you don’t know the statistics because when you are ignorant you are not aware of the biases. But then again, you’ll probably find out the hard way so in the end it is better knowing that as a woman you’ll have to work harder because you have fewer chances of success.
An interesting article published by the Harvard Business Review recently authored by Sahil Raina argues that the gender gap in startup success disappears when women fund women. This is the same chicken and egg problem we have in the participation of women in tech. There are few female founders and few women angels and VCs. The fact that women-founded startups perform better when they are funded by women should not be a surprise to anyone, which of course, does not take away the merit of the research. The real problem is how to engage more women at both ends (starting companies and funding companies) when that’s not what’s expected of women in society.
Many people are talking about the “Hillary effect” these days. Once there is a role model, you can expect a lot more women to follow on the footsteps of those who lead the way. I think that once we have a few highly successful exits of companies founded by women and backed by women, then we won’t have a big problem anymore. It really is a matter of time. I have no doubt that it will happen.
In your experience, is the startup and tech world better or worse for women in the workplace, and what, if anything, would you say is the major difference?
I think it depends on the startup. Startups are defined by the culture the founders create. Because of that, it is possible to create a company that values the working style and preferences of women. It is also the case that startups are demanding and it is hard to have good work-life balance when you are thinking about your startup all the time. More women than men have the responsibly of taking care of their children so it is fundamental that the startup has the discipline and flexibility to accommodate those needs. If people need time to take care of their children, they must have it. In a way, I feel that a startup is a good place for a woman, as long as the startup founders are willing to shape the culture around the needs of women today.
Are there any companies, in your opinion, that are setting an example for diversity in the startup industry?
We are trying to do a good job at Play Works Studio. This is a hard question because I don’t know every other startup and it is hard to know whether specific startups hire diverse people or not. I can say that I follow LittleBits and I believe that they are a good example of a company founded by a woman, with a powerful mission to educate everyone equally, and as far as I can tell they hired a diverse workforce, including women in tech. I hope there are many more examples like it out there.
What advice do you have for women or girls that are interested in working in tech and startups?
The first thing: go for it.
The second thing: don’t go blindly.
I am a fan of learning the rules and then breaking them. If you like tech, learn more about it and play with it. Start projects. Don’t worry about wether this is the right thing to do, or the thing you should be spending time on. Just build stuff! Even if your project or product is not viable in the long run, you still had fun building it. If your product is showing promise and now you want to build a company around it, then learn how startups work. There is a lot more to a startup than just having an idea so learn about it and then do it. In today’s world of accessible information nobody can stop you from learning. And even better, nobody can ever stop you from having fun while you learn!