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Why Computer Engineer Barbie Might Be a Good Thing for Girls (Despite the Controversy)

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. Diversity reports from companies such as Google and Yahoo reveal dismal numbers. While the companies themselves need to work on encouraging women to apply for and stay in computer science jobs, society as a whole will have to do better at inspiring women and girls to pursue their interest in tech. One popular way of doing so has been to use toys as role models. But as the recent flap over Computer Engineer Barbie shows, you can't just slap a new coat of paint on an old, bad idea and call it equality.

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. Diversity reports from companies such as Google and Yahoo reveal dismal numbers. While the companies themselves need to work on encouraging women to apply for and stay in computer science jobs, society as a whole will have to do better at inspiring women and girls to pursue their interest in tech. One popular way of doing so has been to use toys as role models. But as the recent flap over Computer Engineer Barbie shows, you can’t just slap a new coat of paint on an old, bad idea and call it equality.

(Photo Credit: Casey Fiesler via Slate)

Barbie has pursued nearly every career possible and with confidence, encouraging young women that they can do and be everything they want to be, from astronaut to aerobics instructor. Every job, that is, except a computer engineer. In 2010, Mattel released Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer, seemingly to rectify the omission.

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According to NPR, no one really noticed the book until author and screenwriter Pamela Ribon discovered the book at a friend’s house. Though the concept is promising, the book actually tells the story of how Barbie can’t do anything without the help of boys — and she actually doesn’t do any of the coding herself (though she lies and says that she does). Ribon took to her blog to blast the book. Last Tuesday, Gizmodo picked up her post, sending the story viral.

Instantly, the backlash against Mattel went just as viral, slamming the company for creating such a sexist book during a time when young girls need role models who demonstrate girls actually can code and become successful computer programmers — or do anything else they want to achieve, for that matter. Thousands of people took to Twitter with the hashtag #FeministHackerBarbie to rant about just how absurd this book was. Then came along a meme generator, allowing anyone with a better way to tell the story to create their own captions from the story’s pictures.

There’s even an entire remix of the book, published by Casey Fiesler, a Ph.D. candidate in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech. Fiesler actually studies the art of remixing, as her dissertation focuses on the role of copyright in online creative communities. Her remix transforms Mattel’s original narrative into one that puts Barbie at the forefront of a conversation about how she’s discovered sexist attitudes in the industry, as well as that it’s OK to be both feminine and an engineer.

Mattel has apparently realized that’s the initial message they should have been pushing, as they’ve issued an apology on the official Barbie Facebook page, saying:

“The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for.”

In the end, the backlash might just show that we’re headed in the right direction. It’s encouraging to see so many positive messages aimed at young women. Hopefully, this will send the message that girls really can grow up to be anything they want to be, including computer engineers.

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What do you think of Computer Engineer Barbie? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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