Barbie struggling as computer engineer? A sad story that luckily can be fixed

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It is sad, very sad indeed, when a book that is supposed to empower girls sends the opposite message. In its series of Barbie: I Can Be… Mattel hit another low in portraying Barbie as too dumb to handle computers. In Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, as reported on Daily Dot, she manages to infect her laptop with a virus, tells readers that she needs her guy friends to do the coding for her computer game, and needs little sister Skipper to reboot her computer. Little sister Skipper in turn is not able to back up her files.

It’s difficult to understand how such narratives can still pop up given the gender gaps in STEM fields, including computer science. These gaps have become pretty common knowledge. Just recently, NPR’s Planet Money detailed the increase in women in computer science to 35 percent in 1985 to then steeply drop to just 17 percent in 2014 because of a complex entanglement of factors. Another example is Stanford University President Hennessy who recently argued for getting more women working in technology.

As slow as Mattel is on catching up on the trend of properly empowering messages for girls, as quick are women to fix such disturbing sexist narratives. Miranda Parker, computer education specialist, and Casey Fiesler, doctoral student in human-centered computing, inserted the right, feminist messages into the pink dolls’ mouths: “You can like pink and be a really good computer programmer.” The fixed book is available as a PDF for free.

Our Wikid GRRLs project and Wayne State University’s Go GIRL project send the right messages: girls can code, girls can do sciences, study and work in STEM fields, can run wikis, can contribute to knowledge online, can confidently express themselves and their concerns publicly online.

If your school, library, or community center is interested in using our Wikid GRRLs curriculum to teach middle school and early high school girls online skills for knowledge projects, e-mail wikidgrrls@gmail.com

A big shout out to Dr. Sally Roberts at the @WSUGoGirls project and Dr. Monica Brockmeyer, co-founder of the Go Girl and associate provost of student success at Wayne State University, for bringing these stories to our attention. 

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