In Barbie’s world, you can be anything: An astronaut, a doctor, even a computer engineer…but not without the help of a man.
Recently, the 55-year-old American icon has stirred up controversy one again for a new book in the Barbie “I Can Be” series. The story starts with Barbie showing her little sister Skipper, a computer game she is “designing”. When Skipper asks she if she could play the game, Barbie laughs saying: “I’m only creating the design ideas. I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”.
The story only gets worse as Barbie ‘s computer crashes from a virus. But fret not, Barbie aforementioned male friends come to her rescue, offering to fix her computer with one of them saying: “It will go faster if Brian and I help.” At the end, Barbie takes the credit for all of the boy’s hard work.
The book was supposed to portray Barbie as a successful woman in technology, but it showed her as anything but that. It was withdrawn from Amazon’s website after many one-star ratings and stinging reviews.
After feeling the heat, Mattel posted an official apology on their Barbie Facebook page saying:
“The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”
Senior Lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Department of Computer Science, Diane Horton said the children book doesn’t give a good first impression of the world of engineering.
“The book gives the impression that a girl needs a boy or a man to the hard stuff like coding, leaving the girl to design the “pretty” pictures” she said.
According to a Statistic Canada report, despite females representing a large amount of university graduates, they are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields (STEM) fields. Women only accounted for 39% of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with a STEM degree in 2011, compared with 66% of university graduates in non-STEM programs.
Jo Atlee, Computer Science Professor at Waterloo University said the number of women in computer science were comparable to men in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“When I went to university, the female population was about 35 to 40 percent of the class and computer science was on a uphill trajectory compared to other sciences”. Atlee said.
One theory Atlee believes contributed to the drop of women in computer science is when the first personal computers began to show up in households. These computers were only able to do simple tasks and featured software like “shoot em up” games which appealed to boys.
Movies like Revenge of the Geeks and Weird Science, which featured computer literates as geeky men, also contributed to societies image about women in technology.
Ruby**, a Toronto computer engineer said she has felt out of place working as a woman in a male dominated environment.
“I have held several jobs in technology over the years and for the most part, it is odd being surrounded by men all the time,” she said.
“If you are a young female, sometimes you aren’t taken seriously or your judgment is questioned.”
Despite the statistics, there has been an resurgence of women in the field of computer sciences. A number of not- for- profit organizations like Ladies Learning Code and Chic Geek are dedicated to teaching women technical coding skills. And several Canadian universities such as Waterloo, UofT and UBC have resources designed for female students studying in the field.
“There are great opportunities in computing and it’s unfortunate that individuals could be good at something and never get the chance to pursue it”, Horton said.
**Name has been changed