Miriam is delighted to collaborate with Xena and excited for their big mission: building a world where technology is as diverse as its users. She sat down with Megan Gill and Caoimhe Sweeney to talk about how parents can help close the gender gap in tech. Read the full article.
"If you’re on the hunt for some new children’s books then you need to add Zerus & Ona to your bedtime reading list. Educating our children is one of the most important ways that we can ensure we’re making tangible changes for younger generations."
— Caoimhe Sweeney, Xena
How can we shake the inherent bias embedded in our children when it comes to girls in technology? How can we show kids that technology is truly a superpower? With the right information and tools we can do better to inspire our children to become creators of technology.
At a loss of where to start? Well, what child doesn’t love a bedtime story? Changing up your kid-friendly reading list and choosing books that feature zero’s and one’s is one way you can start challenging stereotypes in tech. Not only does it do that, but after reading these imaginative and beautifully illustrated books you will develop an emotional connection to computers through storytelling. What can we say apart from we all wish we met Zerus & Ona a hell of a lot sooner?
Miriam Tocino, author and illustrator of Zerus & Ona is keen to talk about what we can do as parent’s to encourage more girls in technology:
First, can you tell us why you created Zerus & Ona?
I believe that computers shouldn’t be a mystery for our children as they grow up. Especially now that they’re living in a world that it’s so highly driven by technology. How do we make sure that they have that understanding with them as they grow up? The good news is that they are already attracted to technology from an early age. There’s only one catch, that they see it as consumers only.
So the whole idea for Zerus & Ona was, why don’t we take that natural interest to expand our knowledge about computers and help them see themselves not only as consumers but also as creators of technology. That’s where Zerus & Ona come in. They are the two main characters of a picture book series for parents, caregivers, and educators that would like to introduce their kids to the world of technology from an early age and inspire them to learn more about computers.
What motivated you to become an author?
I switched careers from an architect to software developer and from software developer to programming teacher, and then to children’s book author. So I’ve been changing careers my whole life. That’s how I like to look at it.
The idea for Zerus & Ona’s book series came four years ago when I had my son. By that time I was still working as a software developer and a programming teacher. I started thinking about how I’d like to introduce him to the world of computers, and how I could bring some of the elements that I was using during my classes to teach other people about programming, and into people’s homes, and to help them initiate the conversation with their kids about computers and technology.
“I came up with the idea of Zerus and Ona during a discussion with my husband, who is also a computer programmer. There are already two books out. A third title is in the making, and it will be published later this year.”
Why do you believe we need to inspire more kids in technology?
You could say that Zerus & Ona bring together what I’ve been learning during the past 20 years of my life. Which is what I learned in architecture about creating spaces, designing and imagining new places. All the technical aspects of the project I learned from programming. Then from telling stories as a teacher. Stories were always a very important part in my teaching. They always helped me to make abstract concepts, tangible and accessible and keep my students motivated.
If you ask me which of those three things gave me the most confidence. It was my ability to code and being tech-savvy. Knowing that you can build your own website, that you can set up the shop, the domain, hosting the email, customise the liquid templates, and gather any specific data from projects. That you can dive deep into any code and then to make all the pages look the way that you want. Knowing that you can do all that by yourself. That’s such a boost. It gives you the opportunity to say, okay, I’m just going to focus on my dream. So for me, I want to focus on the drawings. I want to focus on the colours. I want to focus on how I can bring this to more children.
“It's important that we inspire our kids so they look at tech as a true superpower. Understanding computers and being at ease with them. It's our responsibility as parents, caregivers and as educators to communicate that to them.”
Again in this case, I don’t believe that every child needs to become a programmer. I don’t believe that coding is so important. It’s more the basic understanding of how computers work as a whole. So they can just make it their own and know how that works. It’s something that will become part of their toolkit for life, whether they end up coding or not.
How can we motivate kids to show them that they can become creators of technology?
We should be inspirational for kids in the early ages. It’s as much as it is about teaching our children as it is about also inspiring them to want to learn more. This is something that is really important to give them a sense of belonging. To give them a sense that computers say something for me, understanding technical aspects, understanding the technology around it and getting interested about this.
What we need to be doing is working in this facelift of the industry. I see a lot of effort put into teaching our kids how to code. And that’s great. But we’re only reaching a minimum amount of children with that. I always think about that girl or that boy in that corner in the classroom, that he doesn’t care or she doesn’t care about coding because it’s not the thing that attracted them. I’m always thinking about how we can reach those two. If we’re going to be living in this world in which our digital space is so important, we need them as well to be making decisions about the digital world that we’re building.
Parents & teachers are the first role models
I think parents and teachers are the first role models for many children. I think they can do a lot to reach the children, and encourage them to become curious about technology and how it works. If you don’t activate that person that it’s in between, there’s no way you’re going to activate the child.
There’s also a huge negative narrative around technology, the screen time, the damages, what it’s doing to our mental health and so on. And I think we also need a positive narrative around it. We also need to look tech savvy if we want to be able to inspire our children. That’s very important that we acknowledge that responsibility that we have daily.
Stop using nouns, start using verbs.
I think more and more that we should stop talking about careers. We should stop talking about nouns, and we should start focusing on verbs. I don’t like to talk to myself, like I’m a writer, or I’m an architect or I’m a sub developer, but I like to replace it with a verb. I write stories. I illustrate. I build websites. I focus on the verb that I like to do. So when I think about children, I ask which are the things that you like to do. I think there is something beautiful about focusing on the verb, because otherwise, you might be attached to the outcome. And then you call yourself a writer, and it looks like you haven’t written in the last six months.
I think there’s something similar about being a computer scientist. There are already some connotations attached to the computer scientist noun that aren’t necessarily true. And I think a way for us to actually fight against that is to not call it a computer scientist. But let’s start breaking it down into what I was saying. Like, let’s design a prototype. Does that make you a computer scientist? Maybe, but you don’t relate it with a noun.
Use connections between technology and the world around us
I love to look for unexpected and surprising connections between technology and the world around us. So things that we don’t expect, things that by default, you wouldn’t call technology. Or you wouldn’t think there is technology involved there. But it turns out that technology is literally everywhere at this moment. So I like to look at it in the broader sense of the concept. I think it is becoming easier every day to find examples, especially with social media and in the last month. Find examples that connect with your children’s interests. So does your child love fashion? There are people doing amazing things with fashion and technology. Does your child love art? Animals? There’s always technology involved in the job, or it can be.
“So the first thing you should ask yourself is, what does my child love? What is he or she already excited about? Second, go and do some research. Who is working in that industry? And how are they using technology in any form? Third, reach out to them.”
Because I can tell you, some people don’t want to talk to you, fine. But I’m a huge believer of making connections online and finding people that are passionate about the things that you are. And we need to reach out to people. First, if you have something that you can offer the world that can help you, you need to reach out to them.
How can we overcome negative stereotypes of girls in tech from a young age?
The day to day matters. Daily, who is at home with the kids, or who is in the school with the kids? It’s the parents, the educators and the caregivers. I don’t believe it’s the whole education. It’s actually a triangle between the child, the parent or the educator, and the thing that you’re teaching. It’s that triangle that needs to work. Otherwise this is a daily practice to get them into technology, to identify themselves with the subject, with the area, and with the industry.
Last summer, I attended the We Are Tech Women conference in the UK. A dad reached out to me and he said, “Hey Miriam, look, this is great, but I have a six year old at home. Sitting there saying that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with technology because computers and robots are for boys. What do you do?”
So firstly, six years old is really early. I guess we should experiment more and more with the ways in which we can get them engaged from an early age. We should keep opening up the conversation about how we are actually dealing with that age when they are so little. We as parents are so important. Because we’re the first role models of our children, whether we like it or not.
How can Zerus & Ona help overcome inherent bias in kids?
If the mom reads Zerus & Ona. Whether you have a girl or you have a boy, you’re instilling in the mind of your child that her mom, who is a woman, is techy. I asked myself, how can I help with the whole gender bias situation in tech?
As a mom of a three-year-old boy I can be the one having those technical conversations with him at home. So that he can see me as a woman and that women can be technical. As I said, when they are so young it is very important what you’re doing as a parent and what you’re doing as an educator on a daily basis with that child.
Moms need to be tech savvy so that we break those stereotypes of women not being technical. Parents also need to be allies. It’s not about educating by example. So the moment that I’m okay with the relationship that I have with my husband, and I see that we’re equals, then he’ll be fine.
How do you embed the values of equality and inclusion in Zerus & Ona to teach children about these values?
Firstly, the characters we create can help us counter stereotypes so we can redefine the roles. Second, the stories that we tell help us reframe this chaos and the trends that we associate with certain careers. Children, especially when they’re little they build a reality from books. We can use books to explain how the world around them works. So a book is a great technology.
There are two characters, Zerus is a zero. Ona is a one, and a he and a she. I wanted to portray an equal relationship between a boy and a girl dealing with computers and making it inclusive in that sense. When I sat down to write the stories, I really thought to myself about the kind of relationship, that kind of conversation that I would like to have with a peer.
How is the communication between them? How are they together? Living this life inside the computer. Is this the type of conversation that I would like to have with a colleague? In which there’s free communication, there is free speech, there is always an underlying desire to support each other, and care for each other. And love. I wish that you could say that’s something that should happen by default.
There is a lot of work to be done in how women and men work with each other. That’s how Zerus & Ona embed these values from a young age.
What do you hope to achieve with Zerus & Ona?
Zerus & Ona are on a mission to reach every child on this planet. Because everybody deserves a memorable introduction to the world of computers. So after you start reading the stories with your children, you’ll have created an imaginary home for them to connect emotionally with computers, both through storytelling and illustrations, as we’ve been talking about.
That will result in more children, especially more girls interested in learning about technology. Hopefully that interest will lead them to a related career. This will increase the diversity among the people thinking about designing and creating our digital future. That’s what I hope for.
This appears in the June 2021 bulletin of Xena.