by George Taniwaki

Every year Mattel introduces several new editions of its ”I can be…” Barbie doll. They include the clothing and accessories necessary for this famous doll to be successful in a particular career. (Me thinks this may have more to do with selling toys than broadening the career sights of little girls, but I digress.) This year, the company decided to let girls vote for their favorite career. The top vote getter would be featured as this fall’s new edition. Mattel heavily promoted the contest on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. (Not sure how I missed it.)

On Feb 12, at the New York Toy Fair, Mattel announced that the winner of the popular vote for the 125th special edition Barbie was computer engineer. It’s hard to tell from the drawing below, but Barbie is wearing a Bluetooth headset, has a t-shirt with computer code written on it, and has a smartphone strapped on. As my friend Jim Reichle would say, “The heat, the heat.” (It’s an inside joke from Caltech.) But to compensate for that bit of nerdiness, she’s color coordinated with hot pink laptop, glasses, and wristwatch (maybe it’s a revival of a Spot Watch).

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Winner of the popular vote, computer engineer. Image from Mattel

You can preorder a computer engineer Barbie from the Mattel web site. I’m sure it will soon become a popular collectible among a certain crowd here in Redmond.

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I thought it was rather odd that computer engineer would beat out the other careers that Mattel offered girls to choose from: architect, environmentalist, news anchor, and surgeon. I didn’t think many girls consider computer science as an attractive career. After all, it isn’t very popular among women entering college. And it turns out that computer engineer wasn’t the first choice of the girls, news anchor was.

An article in Wall St. J. Apr 9. reveals that a viral campaign started by computer engineers hijacked the voting for Barbie’s new career. Computer engineer Barbie became a cause célèbre among the digerati. For instance, a writer for SQLblog encouraged his followers to vote. The influential GeekGirlCamp ran an appeal asking readers to “Please help us in getting Barbie to get her Geek On!”

In the end, Mattel realized the power of social media cuts both ways and decided to have two winners. News anchor was declared the winner of the girls’ vote while computer engineer was the winner of the popular vote. Mattel will release an anchorwoman Barbie in time for this year’s holiday season.

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Winner of the girl’s vote, news anchor. Image from Mattel

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Why did computer engineer Barbie attract so much attention? Well, I think part of it may be the odd sense of duty (or sense of humor) that geeks have toward promoting their culture. (Had I known about this contest, I certainly would have voted for computer engineer.) But part of it may have been to actually raise awareness of computer science as an attractive career for women.

Many formerly male dominated professions such as law, accounting, mathematics, medicine, and biological science are now much more gender balanced, or in some cases becoming female dominated. However, engineering, physical science, and computer science are not.

In fact, the proportion of men in many of these professions never fell below 70% and are actually on the rise again. A Wall St. J. blog post states that the number of women in computer science has been falling while the total number of workers has been growing, causing a steep rise in the male-to-female ratio. (And I don’t think it was caused by girls hearing Barbie say, “Math class is tough.” A study published in Science Jul 2008 shows that the gender gap in math achievement as measured by standardized tests has disappeared. So it is likely something else is causing it. The article points to a problem with standardized tests themselves and the pernicious effect of the No Child Left Behind legislation. But I digress again.)

Most of my own college education and work experience has been in heavily male dominated fields. My freshman year was spent at California Institute of Technology, where in 1977 fewer than 10% of the undergraduates were female. I transferred to the Colorado School of Mines where the proportion of females was about double that. At both schools there were almost no female graduate students or professors. Even after almost 30 years, a Amer. Assoc. Univ. Profes. 2006 report cites Caltech as the doctorate-level school with the lowest proportion of female full professors (14%) in the U.S. The next lowest school? Mines at 16%.

In its first 100 years (from 1874 to 1973), Mines graduated a total of 14 women. The percentage grew quickly thereafter and was still rising while I was attending. But then it stopped. A recent story in Mines Magazine shows that the proportion of women at the school has remain steady for the last twenty years at about 25%. However, the type of student may be changing as women now hold about half of the student leadership positions.

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A professor at Mines, a woman named Tracy Camp, authored a paper that appeared in Comm. ACM Oct 1997 that highlighted the falling enrollment of women in computer science programs and warned of its consequences to the U.S. economy and global competitiveness. She urged action to identify and counteract the forces that were, and still are, leading fewer women to seek degrees in computer science and careers in the IT industry.

I wondered if Dr. Camp was one of the adults who voted for computer engineer Barbie. When asked, she said, “Yes, I voted for the computer engineer Barbie. I also sent an announcement out on my networks, which helped add a lot more votes.” She doesn’t feel bad at all about adults hijacking the vote, “Research has shown that we need to change the image of computing to get more girls interested. Barbie may help.” (One of the great things about writing a blog is that I can send impertinent emails to busy people and they respond, but I digress.)

So there you have it. Computer engineer Barbie is a child’s toy, a collectible, a role model for career-minded girls, an Internet meme that provides a lesson in how social media is changing marketing, a symbol of U.S. economic competitiveness, and a partial solution to the gender gap in engineering. Who knew?

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