Little Barbie Girls

Rebecca Zook of Mashable penned a curious article, “Why Computer Engineer Barbie is Good for Women in Tech.” Curious, because she proceeds to explain why she feels Engineer Barbies are good for us. How they somehow open our eyes and minds to being more tolerant of women in Engineering. And while her claim makes a compelling sound byte, her view is rather… anachronistic.

I have been in the engineering industry for over three decades. My very first job in this particular venue was admittedly somewhat of a fluke. I met Tom, the director of a cutting edge VR Lab who convinced the MIS manager to create a new position: associate programmer analyst. I admittedly still look back on those days with fondness. Why? Because I suppose I was one of the lucky women who had the opportunity to work with men who were far from condescending or geeky or whatever other negative attribute that society likes to lavish upon programmer types. In fact, they loved their jobs and were more than happy to spend hours explaining to me, the “newb,” the finer points of programming. That, and they treated me as an equal. We were a team. And as such, we worked and played together. On Fridays, we would take an extra long lunch, first stopping off for a quick bite to eat and then hit the local arcade. While I totally suck at video games, it was still fun trying. Of course, this was over 30 years ago, so the really nice graphics were relegated to private research labs, such as the one Tom ran.

Tom was an Caltech graduate and eccentric to the bone. He was also brilliant. It was Tom who introduced me to the virtuality those many years ago. Where we donned rather clunky head gear and gloves that provided feedback when you did things like, lifting a virtual chair. The latter, he explained, was necessary in that, in real life, when we lift or move something, we regulate the force we apply in response to the sensory feedback. In this case, the imaginary weight of the virtual chair.

Those were heady times.

Tom was always involved in various projects, including but not limited to a robotic pogo stick that had problems balancing because the battery that powered the thing weighed more than the pogo stick. Then there was the vacuum tube system for modeling the future of really really fast, rail-less trains. I recall when he tested the latter, first using ice and then replacing that with ping pong balls. Both disintegrated before reaching their destination. That was how fast they moved. I loved hanging out at his lab. His projects were, in a word, fascinating.

But, I digress.

Each of us had little side projects where we coded silly little ASCII games. That was around the time I learned one of the first rules of coding, though it had not a thing to really do with coding. And that was, “save often.” While we did not have revision management systems, per se, the operating system we worked on automatically saved file revisions. Something that even today’s so-called high tech operating systems, for example, Microsoft Windows, does not do. Of course, it wasn’t always code. We often played the Colossal Cave AdventureW instead of watching television. When the 300 baud acoustic couplers were replaced by 1200 baud modems, we were geeks in seventh heaven. Though, we never referred to ourselves as geeks, rather we called ourselves, techno-dweebs. Those were truly the days and I have the men who introduced me to the world of bits and bytes to thank. Why? Because they taught me the love of code. Importantly, they taught me the coder’s ethic.

A couple of years later, I decided to enroll in an electrical engineering program. Even though programming came naturally, I was looking for the challenge. Then again, that is part of my make up, part of who I am. I found that challenge in electrical engineering, physics, and math. During this period, I earned extra spending money by providing math and programming tutoring services. And by my second year, I was offered an honorarium instructor position in the Physics department. By my third year, I was offered a job with Rocky Flats. Though, I ended up turning that job down because I really did not feel like glowing. The job involved testing critical mass and distances of various radioactive materials with nothing but a 5 foot thick concrete barrier between us. So, I went back to my roots and the tech company I started out with. This time, as an electrical engineer. While analog modeling and simulation (i.e., spiceW) had been a mainstay of hardware design, I found my niche by being somewhat of an evangelist for modeling and simulating logic circuits. Of course, the first true object oriented language was Simula. So, by the time object oriented programming had become the buzzword of the day, I was well familiar with that particular paradigm.

But enough meandering and back to the article that triggered this trip down memory lane.

Zook makes some rather interesting observations that I am admittedly surprised remain today. Certianly, back when I began my career path, there were very few women in the field. That was, after all, prior to EEO and right at the tail end of the “Old System Boys network”. While I met my share of male chauvinist and often wondered why the women in the field seemed to think they had to dress, behave, and curse like men (and, well, swagger), I never felt that I needed to denounce my femininity in order to achieve my career goals. Just as I do not see why one needs to do so today. Her most curious claim however is that women allegedly feel they must “tone down their femininity” in order to make it in the world of engineering. Yet, outside of talking about her personal clothing tastes, she does not explain why she equates professional attire to loss of femininity.

As for the doll, consider the mixed messages we are sending our children by lauding a pink laptop toting Barbie. The primary being, our society is reluctant to relinquish the old stereotypes, so we give Barbie a pink computer, pink glasses, and “sparkly leggings,” and call her a computer engineer, while ignoring the unrealistic and sexist body type (which all Barbie dolls embody and which we continue to foist upon our children). At the same time, our media machine goes in a completely and extremely opposite direction by portraying “geeky women” as punk rocking freaks with purple hair. Then again, society portrays predators as Elm Street’s “Freddy,” while wondering why we have a problem protecting our children from the “all american and wholesome looking” boy next door. Not surprisingly, phrenology is making a comeback. Our society is obsessed with looks.

Importantly, we appear to be happy to buy into the fallacy that we can divine another’s intelligence or goodness or badness, by simply gazing upon their countenance. Otherwise put, as long as we continue to place people in little stereotypical packages, nothing will change. Of course, in order to change, we have to truly think outside of a box that few will even admit they’re in. Or, just perhaps our society is satisfied with portraying women as nothing more than “little barbie girls in a plastic world.

5 Comments

  1. CommentsAngela Talamasca   |  Wednesday, 10 March 2010 at 08:30

    New blog post → http://bit.ly/LittleBarbieGirls ← Mattel's new answer to female engineers

  2. CommentsVirtuality Hacks   |  Wednesday, 10 March 2010 at 08:30

    New blog post → http://bit.ly/LittleBarbieGirls ← Mattel's new answer to female engineers

  3. CommentsDusan Writer   |  Friday, 12 March 2010 at 07:09

    Virtuality Hacks: Little Barbie Girls http://ow.ly/1i0Ya

  4. Commentsbrinda Allen   |  Friday, 12 March 2010 at 16:29

    Wonderful!!
    I have such a great time in Secondlife watching the virtual astonishment
    when people find out that I started this current "tech journey", {'cause for me
    that's what this is}, three years ago…. and despite my HunnyBunny look
    I'll be 68 in April!

  5. CommentsAngela   |  Saturday, 13 March 2010 at 21:42

    Very awesome! I have had the opportunity to meet many wonderful women who have chosen to embark upon the "tech journey." And yes, this is but one of many journeys that lay before us. The world is indeed our oyster. ^_~

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