I've recently noticed my two daughters taking an interest in Minecraft, an imaginative video game in which players can build -- and take apart -- constructions out of three-dimensional cubes. It's kind of like Legos on steroids.
At first, I was resistant to the idea of my young girls (ages 7 and 11) playing video games. My sons -- and husband -- have always been the "gaming" junkies in our household. My girls have been more interested in singing, dancing and finding any excuse to be up on stage. Frankly, I liked that they weren't glued to a computer screen.
I didn't realize that by condoning this gendered disparity in my children's play, I was inadvertently sending them a message that video games and computers are just for boys -- not to mention contributing to the nationwide wage gap.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, girls today are steering away from math, science and computers in record numbers. The percentage of women graduates in computer science is at a 39-year low. In the mid-1980s, 37% of computer science majors were women; in 2012, that number had dropped to 18%.
While women make up more than 51% of the U.S. workforce, they hold just 26% of computing-related jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In Silicon Valley, the numbers are even worse. Recent diversity data from tech giants like Facebook, Google and Yahoo reveal that women hold on average just 16% of the tech jobs.
These statistics stand in stark contrast to the gains that women have achieved in fields like medicine, law and business. Labor Department numbers show that 34% of physicians and surgeons are women; 39% of lawyers are women; and 56% of business professionals are women.
While the lack of women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is attributed by some people to a lack of interest on the part of women, a more likely explanation is that societal beliefs, or stereotypes, color our view -- insidiously sending our girls the message that women don't have strong math and technical skills and that men make better engineers and computer scientists.
So how do we reverse this trend?
Sheryl Sandberg, the outspoken CEO of Facebook and a role model for women in technology, gave some interesting - and very simple advice on how we, as parents, can encourage our daughters to take an early interest in the STEM fields.
Sandberg's advice? Encourage our daughters to play more video games -- and even play with them -- to pique their interest in computers.
"Computer games are the gateway to computer science," Sandberg said during a talk she gave in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania about gender equality in the workplace.
"A lot of kids code because they play games. Give your daughters computer games," she said. "Ask them to play them."
So what is the correlation between playing video games and interest in technology or STEM careers?
According to Annie Murphy Paul, a writer for KQED's Mind/Shift, playing action video games develops kids' spatial skills, which are an important predictor of creative and scholarly achievements. As Paul explains:
"High scores on tests of spatial ability taken at age 13 predicted something more surprising: the likelihood that the individual would develop new knowledge and produce innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the domains collectively known as STEM."
Referring to a study by University of Toronto researchers published in the journal Psychological Science, Paul writes that "exposure to video games could play a significant role as part of a larger strategy designed to interest women in science and engineering careers."
And why do we care that our daughters develop an interest in science and technology? Because tech is where the jobs are. And tech pays well.
As Sandberg points out, since high-tech jobs pay well, a gender gap in computer science ties into the larger U.S. wage gap, where on average women still make 70 cents to the dollar compared to men.
Whether my daughters' interest in Minecraft is a passing fad or a sign that they will one day be part of the tech workplace, I'd better go fire up the Xbox downstairs -- and figure out how to use it -- before they get home from school!
Samantha is the author/editor of the New York Times-accclaimed book, TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and is working on her next book, GEEK GIRL RISING: Unleashing the Power of Women in Tech.