Can Computer Engineer Barbie Interest More Girls in Tech Careers?

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In December I wrote about a study that concluded geeky IT stereotypes can make women feel they don't belong in the world of IT. The researchers who conducted the study aren't the only ones who think so. Former astronaut Sally Ride thinks negative geek stereotypes are discouraging American students -- and especially female ones -- from enrolling in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses.


A New York Times item about Sally Ride's involvement with the Obama adminstration's Race to the Top educational initiative and her own Sally Ride Science, which attempts to interest kids in science through festivals, science camps and programs involving engineering challenges with toys, offers a sobering statistic from the National Science Foundation: While women comprise 46 percent of the American workforce, they hold just 25 percent of STEM jobs.


Ride relates an anecdote from a 2007 science festival during which an enthusiastic mother (are there any other kind?) introduced Ride to her 12-year-old daughter and spoke at length about her daughter's interest in science. The unconscious message, says Ride, is that such an interest isn't normal. Says Ride:


She was saying, I don't know where she got this, she's so different from everyone else.' Girls internalize the message that scientists are geeky-looking guys with lab coats and pocket protectors who never see the light of day.


The percentage of women employed by 10 of Silicon Valley's most prominent technology companies, including HP, Intel and Cisco, fell from 37 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2005. The number of female managers and top executives dropped from 28 percent to 26 percent during the same time period, reports MercuryNews.com. The employment rolls at those companies saw even steeper declines in African-American and Hispanic workers.


Why is this important? Said Caroline Simard, research director for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology:


If everybody around the table is the same, the same ideas will tend to come up. If you have a diversity of race, gender, age, educational and different life experiences, people will attack a problem from different perspectives, and that will lead to innovation. In an industry that thrives on innovation, like high tech, it's especially important.


Critics fault everything from a struggling public educational system, to the tech industry's reliance on H-1B workers from India and other countries, to a lack of networking opportunities, to those ingrained geek stereotypes.


Mattel, maker of the iconic Barbie, may help address the latter issue with Computer Engineer Barbie, coming in the winter of 2010. Barbie has had 124 other professions throughout the years, all over the career spectrum from McDonald's cashier to U.S. president. This marks the first time Barbie's job was chosen by the public, with computer engineer and news anchor selected as dual winners during an online voting process.


The Society of Women Engineers helped design Computer Engineer Barbie, who will rock a pink laptop, a Bluetooth earpiece, pink-framed glasses and a T-shirt emblazoned with binary code. A Mattel press release quotes Nora Lin, president of the Society of Women Engineers:


As a computer engineer, Barbie will show girls that women can design products that have an important and positive impact on people's everyday lives.