I didn’t write about last week’s women in tech fail—scientist Matt Taylor’s decision to wear a sexist shirt while live-streaming the Rosetta comet landing—but I absolutely have to write about this week’s—computer engineer Barbie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something with so much potential fail so spectacularly.
Some time back my five-year-old daughter Sally found a book at the library that starred Barbie trying out various careers: ballerina, horse rider, teacher, veterinarian, and “baby doctor.” I found the pink fluffiness of the stories overwhelming, but I told myself that at least they introduce girls to a variety of careers. That’s a good thing, right? I mean yes, there’s no such thing as a “baby doctor”—that would be obstetrician or pediatrician—and I’m pretty sure most hospitals don’t gender code the bottles they use, and yes, the veterinarian’s animals all lived in cages that were pink and purple, but at least it was something, right?
All of this is to say that I was already familiar with the Barbie “I Can Be” line of books, which come with accompanying Barbie outfits and paraphernalia.
Today I came upon news of the latest installment in this series: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. But I just read through a detailed review of the book and guess what Barbie doesn’t actually do even once? Be a computer engineer. Basically, it’s like this:
Yes, that’s an actual page, from the actual book. Barbie actually says “I’m only creating the design ideas. I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” And yes, she laughs while saying it, as though the suggestion that she might actually make the game herself—you know, do what computer engineers do—is laughable.
Barbie sends her design idea to Steven and Brian and they do the actual computer engineering—they make the game. Then she turns the game in for her computer engineering class and gets extra credit, it’s so good. (If one of my students did this over here in actual real college—rather than Barbie college—it would be called cheating.)
Barbie also crashes her sister’s laptop, gets Steven and Brian to fix it, and then gives it back to her sister and takes all the credit.
And this somehow makes her a computer engineer.
Not surprisingly, angry mothers of little girls have taken to the internet, and that means the books Amazon reviews are not good. I’ll finish by quoting the top rated Amazon review, written by a woman in tech:
Barbie starts out at breakfast stating that she’s designing a game but when questioned by her sister Skipper, she admits, “I’m only creating the design idea, I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game”. Literally six sentences into the story, and already Barbie can NOT do it. She immediately admits she doesn’t know how to actually do computer engineering, and like a Disney princess, needs a white knight to rescue her. The attitude Barbie portrays in the between the illustrations and story line makes it clear that Barbie needs a boy’s help and can NOT do this on her own. This is in stark opposition of Mattel’s branding and positioning of the “I can be” line of toys.
It then gets worse. Barbie tries to email her design ideas to Steven when all the sudden things go downhill. She, the computer engineer, reboots the computer but needs the help of her sister to do so. Skipper then has to point out to Barbie, the expert, that she has a virus. While that’s not enough, Barbie convinces Skipper to let her use her computer and then Barbie, the computer engineer, promptly infects Skipper’s machine with a virus, which causes Skipper to lose her homework and files. Barbie then basically shrugs off this slight and skips off to school, where she finds herself in computer class asking about what to do about viruses.
The teacher then gives out technically inaccurate advice (but I digress) and the scene moves onto after school where Barbie is meeting the boys. It is Steven, not Barbie the computer engineer who actually “can do” computer engineering. Their exchange:
“I’ve got Skipper’s assignment from the hard drive!” exclaims Steven.
“Fantastic!” says Barbie. “And her other files, as well?”
“I’ve got everything”, says Steven. “Now let’s retrieve the files from your hard drive. Both laptops will be good as new in no time!”
The next scene is the next morning where Barbie presents her sister with her lost files. Barbie takes 100% of the credit for fixing something to which she contributed nothing. Barbie also accepts extra credit for work she did not do. The story cites—of all things—her exceptional computer skills as the reason.
This is in stark contrast to the Actress Barbie in the first story in the book. In that story, Barbie is a grown woman, a competent and well-known professional, who actually does save the day by helping some younger folks in the theater.
I work as a software engineer, which is a male dominated field. It is exactly these stereotypes and portrayals of girls like the one in this book that are the driving force behind the lack of girls wanting to enter these lucrative technology fields. This book is part of the problem. I hope Random House replaces this book with something more appropriate for children.
But oh no, we don’t have any problems with women in tech! None at all!