Computer Engineer Barbie!

Yesterday was International Women's Day and since I'm a firm believer in International Better Late Than Never Day, I thought I thought I'd add my little contribution to the celebration. Or at least highlight a great post from someone else.

Computer Scientist Amy Csizmar Dalal's recent blog post Does Barbie's career matter? has some great things to say about the importance of role models and positive examples for girls who might be interested in scientific or technical careers:

I was a somewhat normal (don't laugh too hard) but nerdy kid growing up who loved math and science. And while I had wonderful role models growing up, I had no technical role models at all. So I had these nerdy interests but no real idea what people could do with them, career-wise. It was my high school guidance counselor who clued me in to the world of engineering, and the rest, as they say, is history. And it's not like you can just accidentally take a class in engineering and decide to major in it--you have to know going in to college that engineering is what you want to do. So that intervention by my guidance counselor was crucial to where I ended up, career-wise. And more importantly, this intervention from my counsellor was the one and only message I heard about engineering while growing up. But that's all it took: one message from an adult I greatly respected.

So what messages do girls hear about technology growing up, and about their place in the technical world? Unlocking the Clubhouse, the seminal book by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, tells us that girls often aren't getting the message at home that being into computers is socially or intellectually acceptable. Peer pressure in junior high (and even before then) sends the strong message to girls that being a computer nerd is often a social death sentence. And the media? Well, how many images of successful women computer scientists have you seen on the news, on commercials, on TV, in movies, online, etc. lately?

Barbie is an icon, like it or not. And she can send a powerful message to young girls. So in the face of all the other negative messages about computer science that our girls are hearing, why not have Barbie rail against that message and present an alternative, a role model and anti-stereotype?

There's a nice pic of Computer Engineer Barbie here.

One small contribution I did make is to set up a display of books on Women in Science & Engineering in my library. We have a couple of shelves where I can display 30 or so books on a theme for students to look at or check out. It's a real quick and dirty display, one that's easy for me to set up and easy to maintain for the month it's up. The themes vary (January was career books, February on green technology) but every year in March I get out a pile of books on women in science and put them out. Over the course of the month, maybe a dozen or so get checked out; as they do, I just replace them with other books.

This year, as an added bonus, we're also highlighting my display on the York University Libraries home page: Women in Science: On display in March on the Steacie Science & Engineering Library Spotlight Bookshelf. Hurry up and catch it before the display changes.

Here are a couple of pictures of the display:



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Speaking from experience, I've encountered several places on the internet where I and other young females congregate. Our nerdy interests seem more "normal" when we recognize that others share them, and by informing one another about career opportunities and educational outlets to explore our developing talents, we're less likely to be sucked into female archetypal roles due to sheer ignorance. And since social media is becoming increasingly popular among young females (through sites such as Facebook, Myspace, and instant messaging and forum services) I might predict that this trend will increase. Being into computers and videogames is less of a deviant and nerdy pursuit than it was years ago among females. My sister is a fairly typical highschooler who I can't claim is a nerd (she's smart and not afraid to show this, but our family cultivates this. She's really more of an athlete and socialite). She and many of her friends regularly text and communicate via internet and phone networks and she's very popular at school.

I'm not sure how much this represents the rest of the country though. I will say that our area has a fairly high percentage of computer engineers and many of our parents worked together at establishments like Digital (formerly Caiman) and Cisco, to give a few examples. Most kids growing up there had computers since they were very little. We had two, when it was rare to have any! So surrounded by adults who regularly use computers for work and other activities, it's not unexpected that we kids would use them in the same manner.
However, computers are far more ubiquitous, cheap, and powerful now. Pretty much anyone can get an inexpensive desktop computer. You can bet that by the next generation (when my peers start having children, and many aready have), computer-usage and competency will not just be normal, you might be considered a freak if you DON'T use one.

@erin, there's a difference, though, between being comfortable *using* technology/computers and being able to *see* yourself as someone who can *do* computer science. Our intro classes right now are about 50/50 women/men. The women, as well as the men, are heavy computer users---social media, texting, gaming, but a fair number of them have also done some programming, web page development, etc. This is a change even from 7 years ago, when I started teaching. Yet still, the women, by and large, are not taking Intro CS b/c they are thinking about CS as a major---they are taking it out of curiosity, or because they think some computing background will help them do X. So I think it takes more than surrounding young people and kids with computers and technology---there are still subtle (and not so subtle) cultural things there.

Barbie needs a pocket protector to complete the outfit!

Rod, definitely! She should get a pocket protector and lose the bluetooth headset. Although, I'm not exactly sure where she would put the pocket protector....

Erin, acdalal, it's an interesting way to look at things. Working at a busy reference desk, I see a lot of students struggling with technology and I'm not sure if there's much difference between the women and the men -- except perhaps for the women's greater willingness to actually ask for help.

As for how to encourage young women to see themselves as makers of technology rather than just users, that's a really hard question and probably most people have decided which type of person they are by the time they get to university. Or maybe not. I don't know.

Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, back in the early-mid 1980s when I did computer science, Concordia's program had both a systems stream and a general business stream -- the stream I was in. The business one had far more women in it, probably close to 50/50, and it would be interesting to try and find out why that stream attracted women more. The core courses were the same, just that we took fewer math & other science courses.