Does Barbie’s career matter?

You may have heard the news recently that Barbie has a new career selected by the Interwebs:  computer engineer!  From Mattel’s press release:

For the first time ever, Barbie® asked the world to help her select her next career. Over the past few months Barbie® did research around the world and also conducted an online voting campaign where we have called upon the world to vote for Barbie® doll’s next career ….
The polls closed on February 10th and over half a million votes were counted! … The winner of the popular vote is Computer Engineer. Computer Engineer Barbie®, debuting in Winter 2010, inspires a new generation of girls to explore this important high-tech industry, which continues to grow and need future female leaders.

A cool side note:  Mattel actually enlisted the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to help design Barbie’s look and accessories—and Barbie is decked out quite well, from the binary t-shirt to the bluetooth headset to the pink laptop (with binary on the screen that spells out “barbie”) to the stylish pink glasses.

But how much does Barbie’s career matter?  How influential is Barbie on girls’ career choices?

It’s a fair question.  Here’s what the president of SWE has to say:

“All the girls who imagine their futures through Barbie will learn that engineers — like girls — are free to explore infinite possibilities, limited only by their imagination,” says Nora Lin, President, Society of Women Engineers.  “As a computer engineer, Barbie will show girls that women can turn their ideas into realities that have a direct and positive impact on people’s everyday lives in this exciting and rewarding career.”

I like this statement because it speaks to a couple of different aspects:  the importance of technical role models for young girls, and breaking the stereotype that computer science/engineering is not a “useful”, “relevant”, or “helping” field.

Chick with Phizzle Dizzle makes a slightly different point in her post:

This is so exciting to me. I might actually buy this Barbie and put her in my office. I can’t describe how….validating this feels. Part of me feels that is pathetic, but part of me feels proud that the forces of the world united to show Mattel that people want Barbie to be a nerd. Can you imagine? How many women (and men) nerds out there joined together for this? This tells me that I am not as alone as I feel sometimes. That there are other women out there like me, and men…who are supportive. This is not some little online poll, this is a vote that made an international toy giant choose Computer Engineer for Barbie’s next career! I am gushing. I am embarrassed by my joy…. Computer Engineers don’t have to be Mountain Dew-addled guys who haven’t showered in 4 days. I know a few of those, but they are vastly outnumbered by nice normal people – and this is a truly widespread way of reducing that stereotype. Computer Engineers can be girls. Computer Engineers can wear cute (albeit geeky) cloths. Computer Engineers can have long, lustrous, beautiful hair. Computer Engineers….can be Barbie. And maybe now, so will a lot of little girls. Who knows, maybe I’m putting to much stock into this. But it’s such a lonely world out there for us girl geeks….that this makes me really quite happy.

This, again, speaks to the importance of role modeling, but also speaks to the validation aspect:  if Barbie can be a computer engineer, then it’s ok for “normal” people to be computer scientists and engineers, too.

So are we putting too much stock in Barbie?  Are we reading too much into her career choice?  Will we see a surge in girls interested in computer science and engineering in 10 years?  Hard to say.  But let me share a bit of my own story as another reference point.

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 counselor 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?