Barbie the coder

So the big news last week was the latest “occupation” for Barbie is a computer engineer, whatever that means (I guess let the perennial hardware versus software debates begin). Maybe it is time to retire that “math class is hard” speech chip once and for all and replace it with some often-used Linux shell commands. Or maybe this should be a lesson for our daughters: persevere past the polynomials, and you too can code. Or design circuits.

Personally, I am glad to seek Geek Barbie, with her hot pink netbook and matching Bluetooth headset. (And what is up with all the different Bluetooth headsets on 24, anyway? Didn’t anyone at CTU’s IT department get involved?) It is about time. We need role models wherever we can find them in the popular culture. And while you might have issues with Barbie’s unrealistic and unobtainable, ahem, dimensions, the fact remains that she has paved the way. Just take a look at the history books:

Barbie joined NASCAR twelve years ago, now we have that hot GoDaddy babe Danica Patrick racing at Daytona this past weekend. And as an astronaut in 1965, she was certainly ahead of Sally Ride nearly two decades later, who incidentally was at Stanford just before my time there. She has already run for President, twice. And last year she came with her own tramp stamp, what could be more hip than that? So she is a bit behind the times in the tattoo department.

Back when I went to college and grad school, in those dark pre-PC days of the 1970s, we didn’t have any girls, let alone ones that looked like Barbie, in the nerd classes. In my dorm at Stanford, it was 297 guys, 3 gals. This was the fabled Crothers Memorial engineering dorm – the dorm that played such a significant role in the early PC era that a Silicon Valley company was named after it (Cromemco Computers). I mean, how pathetic and nerdy can that be? But I digress.

I realize that the male/female engineering mix is changing – at the recent iPhone app dev class that I attended, there were two women out of a class of 20. This semester the breakdown is 4 out of a class of 45. Still not great. So how can we get more women into the computing field? Certainly not by offering hot pink computer cases, although there is something to be said for that.

I think it goes back to elementary school, where we need to encourage basic math and analytical thinking for girls early on. People that turn into great engineers love to take things apart and put them back together and have a natural curiosity about how the world works. I remember when my brother and I were growing up, we were constantly breaking stuff (the difference was my brother could actually fix things (who went on to become a EE) doing this all the time. Let’s destigmatize girls doing this. Barbie is a great first step.

4 thoughts on “Barbie the coder

  1. A female writer friend of mine writes:

    ‘m not sure what the answer is — current statistics show that girls are doing better at everything than boys. Boys are still geeky, though, I guess. I don’t think we’re doing a great job teaching anyone these days — math or non-math.

    We have, however, come a long way from the days when I was told by my high school guidance counselor that “girls aren’t supposed to score higher on the non-verbal section of the SAT” — that’s not higher than boys; it’s higher than on the verbal section — scoring higher than boys was unthinkable. Contrary to what one might have seen as an SAT prediction, I do “verbal” work, as you know, these days; but I often think that if, when I was in first or second grade, I hadn’t been convinced that I couldn’t “do” math, my life might have been different — not a problem, though, I’m very happy being a word person … but how many other women were convinced that a life in math was not the path for them and they, thus, never found a path. I guess when you plan that women will be homemakers, their math skills are less important. Perhaps they had boys, or eventually daughters, who followed those math paths.

  2. Long-time reader Robert Wilkinson writes:

    I think Barbie is behind the curve in this instance. Far behind.

    Interesting, because for a few years now I have been noticing that less and less women are engaged in computer software. It used to be one of the few engineering related places that approached a 50/50 gender split.

    Now, when I go to user groups, it seems to be over 95% men. That may be due to the fact that these are held in the evening, and maybe women find it more difficult, for one reason or another to get out of the house (and that is another conversation ! ) However, I think it is sad, because it is the user groups that to a great extent are the people at the forefront of technology.

    On the other hand, maybe the women who would have gone into software, as the best available job, are now becoming attorneys and doctors. I know more than 50% of new attorneys are women. Not sure about doctors, but they are certainly making great progress.

    P.S. I wonder if women have suffered disproportionately from out sourcing, since a lot of them were in the cobol world of insurance, banking, etc.

  3. I’ve been researching and involved in getting more girls into IT for over 10 years now (www.witwomenwa.org.au)and interestingly it is the parents and teachers who are usually the main culprits responsible for turning girls off the idea of a career in Information Technology or Computer Science – often because the teachers believe the “nerd” stereotype and have had no experience themselves (especially the female teachers) of enjoying technology. We have found that in Australia teachers routinely head girls off that path around the age of 12/13 and if the girls persist in their interest move them into “supportive” roles within IT. Also very interesting is the contrast in our near neighbours in Asia who actively encourage their daughters to pursue careers in technology whether IT or a Science discipline. For more information on our findings also check out http://www.awise.org.au and the controversy generated around the Calendar of Women in IT a few years back!

  4. Unfortunately, according to National Science Foundation statistics, the percentage of women in computer science has actually been decreasing. The percentage of bachelor’s computer science degrees earned by women dropped from 37% in 1985 to 22% in 2005. At higher levels the percentage was even lower.

    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/2008-05/figc-2.htm

    In other fields, the proportion of women is increasing – such as in biology, chemistry, math, and astronomy. Other fields are making slower progress, but still generally increasing – such as physics (rising from around 15% in the eighties to 20% now at the bachelor’s level).

    Based on this, I don’t think it has anything to do with encouraging basic math and analytical thinking in elementary school girls. Girls have fine math and analytical thinking skills, and are represented well in math classes through the high school level. This continues in college: women currently earn around half of math degrees at the bachelor’s level.

    So the cause has nothing to do with women’s skills or girl’s Barbie dolls – but rather with the environment of computer science and computer science departments. For various reasons, women who are skilled in math and analytical thinking do not want to go into computer science, because despite good job possibilities, they do not perceive it as an environment they would like. If we want more women, we need to make these environments more welcoming to potential women candidates.

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