Friday, November 21, 2014

Can STEM girls be pretty in pink? Mattel thinks not.

In the old days, Barbie was just a glamour puss, standing tall in her spikes and striped bathing suit, just waiting for you to pull a ball gown over her head and send her out the door on tux-wearing Ken’s arm.

But then Barbie became something of a career gal, Barbie Computer Engineerwith her ambitions growing over time. Stewardess Barbie, meet Astronaut Barbie. Nurse Barbie, meet Doctor Barbie. Secretary Barbie, meet Executive Barbie.

And Barbie can even be a Computer Engineer, pink laptop and all!

Me, I love whenever I hear that more women are finding their way into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) careers – even if they are made out of plastic.

When I heard about Computer Engineer Barbie, I figured that she wasn’t the talking Barbie who famously uttered “I hate math” or “Math is so hard.” (Leaving us wondering why so many math-headed girls turn away from the subject when the hit middle school. If they’re exposed to Barbie’s pap, it must feel to them that it’s so un-girly to like boy stuff like numbers.)

As it turns out that while Computer Engineer Barbie is really only pretending to be a computer engineer.

Her real skill is to dream up an idea for a computer game, and then get the guys to write it for her.

Nothing wrong with being a designer. Nothing wrong with getting the right folks to implement your ideas. And, yes, there are folks who focus on the idea, or the UI, while others take care of the underlying code.

But being the idea person does not necessarily translate into Barbie = Computer Engineer – especially when she pulls the pale-frail ninny act.. (And in front of her sister Skipper, no less.)

This was what writer Pamela Ribon found out when a friend showed her a book entitled “Barbie: I can be a Computer Engineer.” (She wrote about it here. Her post was then published in full on Gizmodo, which is where I saw it.)

In the book, Barbie is fast at work, designing a game “that shows how computers work”, not with any pointed headed binary or hex nonsense, but with a cute puppy doing cute tricks.

But, as she tells Skipper, Barbie’s not going to code the app, Steven and Brian are.

Steven and Brianna?

Couldn’t it have been Stephanie and Brianna? Or Steve and Brianna? Or Stephanie and Brian?

Couldn’t Barbie have said something a tad more empowering, like “I’ll be coding the core underpinnings, Steven will be doing the UI, and Brian will QA it.” This would give Barbie a bit more techie cred, and show that she knows how to get things done. (Even better, Barbie might explain to Skipper that, while she used to do the coding, these days she’s a manger, but she still gets to keep her hand in coming up with specs once in a while. Good thing she has underlings like Steven and Brian who can implement for her…) 

As if admitting that she can’t code worth a damn isn’t bad enough, Barbie Computer Engineer, when trying to email her ideas to Steven, gets a blinking screen. She and Skipper try to reboot: no dice.

Fortunately, Barbie – who apparently hasn’t heard of Carbonite – has backed things up on a flash drive, which she can use on Skipper’s computer.

Or she could use it on Skipper’s computer if that darned flash drive wasn’t so virus ridden that it takes Skipper’s laptop down as well. (Thanks, Big Sis.)

Barbie may be a Computer Engineer, but she’s apparently a rank beginner because she’s still in a computer class – where we see her next – where it’s still okay to ask a question like “if your computer gets a virus and crashes, how can you retrieve all the files you lost?”

The teacher – STEM queen Ms. Smith – explains how to do it, an exchange in which it is revealed that Computer Engineer Barbie isn’t aware of security software.

Naturally, after class, Barbie seeks out Steven and Brian.

And, what do you know? Those savvy boys aren’t only coders, they know how to make the fix.

Pamela cites her friend Helen Jane here. (Both, by the way, are the mothers of young girls.)

Steven and Brian are nice guys, I'm sure. But Steven and Brian are also everything frustrating about the tech industry. Steven and Brian represent the tech industry assumption that only men make meaningful contributions. Men fix this, men drive this and men take control to finish this. Steven and Brian don't value design as much as code. Steven and Brian represent every time I was talked over and interrupted — every time I didn't post a code solution in a forum because I didn't want to spend the next 72 years defending it. Steven and Brian make more money than I do for doing the same thing. And at the same time, Steven and Brian are nice guys.

And Barbie, as it turns out, isn’t.

When the fix is in and she’s able to return Skipper’s laptop to her:

…she completely takes all the credit that it's no longer broken! What an asshole!

Barbie: I can be a Computer Engineer is a flip book that reverses to Barbie: I can be an Actress, where:

…Barbie saves the day by filling in for the princess in Skipper's school production of "Princess and the Pea." She ad-libs and smiles her way through her lines, and charms the entire audience. Standing ovation, plenty of praise. At no point did she need anybody's help. She didn't even need lines! Just standing there being Barbie was enough for everyone in attendance. See, actors? It's not that hard. Even Barbie can do it.

Thanks to Pamela Ribon, Mattel has apologized and promises to do better:

"We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits," Barbie's Facebook post says. 'We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girls imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.” (Source: Huffington Post.)

The book has been around since 2010, and has apparently had a number of ding reviews on Amazon. But it took Ribon/Gizmodo to get Mattel moving.

I’m sure that Ribon and her friend will be looking at future titles, trying to keep Mattel honest here.

Look, there are differences between boys and girls.

Years ago, I saw a video of playgroups – made up of 4 year olds - that were given trucks and dolls to play with. The boys used the trucks to crash into each other; the girls used the trucks to transport the dolls to each others houses.

But that doesn’t mean that girls shouldn’t be encouraged to become interested in STEM, and to have it acknowledged that they can do it. (And why not let more boys know that they can be nurses and teachers, while we’re at it.)

I’ve been in the technology biz for more than 30 years and, yep, most of those Stevens and Brians are nice guys.

But why can’t Barbie be techie, too?

Sometimes life can be so disheartening.


And a doff of a Barbie-pink cap to my brother-in-law John for sending this story my way.

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