Barbie, the computer engineer

Yesterday I had an email from Systers (more about that later) that cited an article about a woman who works for the defense department who was a consultant on designing the computer engineer Barbie (see http://science.dodlive.mil/2010/05/21/defense-fellow-helps-give-barbie-a-new-career/). The article was an interesting summary of how this woman tapped her networks and came up with some of the ideas for the new outfit. So, it talked about “networking.” My son and my students will tell you this is one of my favorite topics for “lectures.”

Why is networking important? It is important for getting jobs, and learning things and just existing. Life happens because of the people we know and what we learn from them. In the article, Dr. Fitzgerald notes that some of the people who gave her ideas were on Systers, “the world’s largest email community of technical women in computing.” Systers is an online community hosted by the Anita Borg Institute that brings together young and old women in technology with each other. It is a wonderful resource through which women receive ideas and mentoring, share their accomplishments, and talk about what it means to be a woman in technology. I found this list late in my career, but it has done much to help me realize that some of the things I experience are not because I am “me,” but rather because I am a woman in technology. I read emails that tell stories that I have experienced almost exactly – different people, but the same discussion and the same issues. What is wonderful about the list is that the Systers give advice – “this is how I got out of that situation” or “this is what I would do.” So, it is more than a place to complain, but rather a place to get support and guidance. When you join you promise to keep the emails secret (so there can be honest discussion), so I cannot give you explicit examples. But, I recommend it to any woman in technology; and I recommend you learn more about the activities of the Anita Borg Institute.

Computer Engineer BarbieNow, back to Barbie. If you haven’t heard the story, here is the line. When Mattel brings a new career to Barbie, it puts up some ideas online and people vote. In addition, Mattel holds some focus groups. So, when it became known that a computer engineer was one of the careers being considered for Barbie, an email came over Systers announcing that we could vote. I’ll be truthful – even though I have not played with a Barbie in many decades, I voted. I sent emails to friends and colleagues and encouraged them to vote. When all was said and done the “middle age women” (probably most of us from Systers) voted for computer engineer while the focus groups (all girls who actually play with the doll) voted for media anchor. Mattel decided to introduce both careers this year and they will be available this fall. This was all announced by Mattel (including the voting), but several weeks later, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that we old women were stealing the election. As a former resident of Chicago, I couldn’t believe they were claiming there was a problem – I had only voted once! (For those of you who don’t know, Chicago is known for voting irregularities.) The story was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and later the St. Louis Post Dispatch. How do I know this? Because I received anonymous and not-so-anonymous clippings of the story in my email and my snail mailbox. My colleagues were making sure I knew we had stolen the election.

To me, the real story is why these women took the time to vote and to share the idea of voting with others. What did they see that others don’t. What they see is that the number of young women opting for a career in computing is dropping every year, while the problems of women in computing in the workforce are not going away as they are in other professions. For some reason, it is no longer seen as “the thing to do.” Dr. Fitzgerald says it well in the article “What Computer Engineer Barbie will do, I think, is broaden the realm of not only what is possible, but what feels accessible—being smart, confident, and tech-savvy without sacrificing femininity or fun.” We believe that if Barbie can be a computer engineer that it will open more doors for young women to pursue this path. And, that is a good thing.

Why do we care? Obviously, those of us who have been in the trenches for a while would like to think that the pathways we opened will stay open for those who have the interest. It is more important than that. The Standish Report, which is cited all over the industry (even though it has many methodological problems), tells us that somewhere between 20% and 70% of all systems development projects are not successes. Some are out and out failures, some are just challenges. But, the point is that we, as an industry, do not get many clear cut wins. We also know that diverse the design teams generally produce better results. So, why do we want to see more women in technology? Obviously, we want the output of the industry to be better. If computer engineer Barbie will help, then I am all for it.

Mattel will probably do quite well with this decision. I know I have already purchased my own computer engineer Barbie and I am sure others on the Systers list have done so too. Those are purchases Mattel would not otherwise have gotten. This is in addition to all of those Barbies that will be given to age appropriate girls.

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