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Oh Barbie, You've Missed the Mark Again

This new Barbie book continues to make the same old mistakes.

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As a child growing up, I played with Barbies. Needless to say, I have a soft spot in my heart for them. Yesterday, Barbie caught my eye in the news (Warning: potentially NSFW language in that article).

She was becoming a Computer Engineer and learning how to code! Except… that wasn’t really what was going on. Barbie designs a game (which is a great thing on its own) but proved to be unable to do it without the help of her male friends. Not only that, her laptop (and her sister’s) became infected with a virus, so she asks her computer science teacher how to fix it. Even though she has the knowledge to fix her computer, the boys step in because “it will be faster” to just let them do it.

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How condescending.

Though I was never actively discouraged from going into any sort of engineering field, I was never actively encouraged either. After being hired by SparkFun, I’ve been inspired to start learning how to code. So far, it’s been a pretty frustrating journey, but I’m rather determined to figure electronics out. This Barbie debacle frustrates me more than any code I've encountered. As a woman just beginning to learn how to code, this book makes me angry. Barbie implies that women can’t code; they depend on men to do the hard work, and then take the credit for the work. Why couldn’t Barbie have figured out how to code the game herself? Why didn’t she fix her computer on her own? She had the knowledge.

This book had so much potential to encourage girls to begin exploring technology, and yet… it failed pretty miserably. Thanks Barbie, but I’ll be reading about Grace Hopper for real coding inspiration, and getting back to working on my projects.


Comments 67 comments

  • Take heart, Alina. Code is gender-neutral.. as is logic. You'll get it right even where Barbie and her authors failed.

  • The frustrating thing is that this could have easily been avoided if either Brian or Steven were replaced with a female character. Just one of them would be fine!

    It's okay for Barbie or any character to not understand coding - maybe she learns it as the story progresses, eh? The problem is when all of the tech-savy characters are male. Major disappointment.

  • I find this interesting... Several comments here about how, basically, people come to Sparkfun for parts, not social/political commentary.

    I wonder why there wasn't any comments along those lines on this Sparkfun post about Network Neutrality: https://www.sparkfun.com/news/1572 - after all, I know I don't go to Sparkfun to read about Network Neutrality - heck, Sparkfun doesn't even sell internet access or video streaming. Even people who disagreed with Sparkfun's views didn't say "I didn't come here for this" - they just made their points. Interesting.

  • Well, it looks like the Internet has its answer: Feminist Hacker Barbie. Help re-write the book, meme-style!

    • Hmm, it seems the internet has ruined it's own answer by filling the front page with photos of Richard Stallman, and adding text worthy of the dark alleys of reddit.

      • Well, the "dark alleys of reddit" are always still better than the light alleys of 4chan. It's just how the internet works, you know. Nonetheless, it's good that people are sticking up for themselves in these kinds of things, even if it causes humongous flame wars that I will never have time to read.

  • Wow, amazed at some of the comments from other men here. There are plenty of good ones, but too many bad ones. This book is terrible. It's sexist. Duh.

    The idea that women just aren't interested is bull, from people who don't want to acknowledge that women have a hard time in technology - and it's been getting worse (after all, for a while in the past, MOST programmers were women - clearly they aren't opposed to the idea of working in technology; what changed is that programming started paying good and suddenly it became man's work rather than women's work).

    Sparkfun, keep at trying to bring electronics, making, and coding to the masses - which includes pointing out the sexism that makes your market smaller than it should be.

  • I don't see why anybody (boy or girl) has to be actively encouraged to enter any field. I am raising both boys and girls and I give them all opportunity to sit with me and solder/program/release magic smoke/press buttons/etc when they want to, but I don't encourage them to pursue it beyond praise for something well done/cool or helping them learn to stick with something that happens to be hard until they succeed at it. If my children express interest in a particular subject we do our best as parents to provide opportunity, resources and time for them to explore that venture but I won't actively encourage any of my kids into the STEM field if they don't express interest.

    I've seen this sort of becoming a "thing" in the STEM field where they look around and say "Gosh, there are 80 people in our engineering division and only 3 of them are women. We better restructure to make this more gender appropriate." But really, some fields are more interesting to boys than girls and vise versa. Why do we need to change the fields to balance the genders? If my daughter loves calculus I'll be the first one to cheer her on and encourage her growth by making sure she has the mentors, encouragement, time, etc. to pursue her interest. If my son loves cooking and interior design, same thing. Can't that be enough?

    I guess when you say that you were never actively discouraged from going into any sort of engineering field but neither actively encouraged my question would be: Did you express interest in studying a field of engineering and were offered no support? Or did you mean that your interests didn't incline you towards the STEM field but somebody should have come along and pushed you in that direction because we need more women pursuing STEM fields?

    I don't mean this in any derogatory way whatsoever. I just don't want to see us push our interests on others. I'm all for coming alongside someone trying to learn and encouraging them to overcome the challenges, learn and discover. I like your determination that will see you through the painful beginnings when learning to code and I say keep pressing on with your desire and you will overcome these challenges.

    • You are assuming that kids are not being inactively discouraged. Whenever people are surprised that a woman or girl is interested in computers, or math, or electronics girls are going to subconsciously think "Am I not supposed to be?" When there are opportunities for boys to get their hands on these things early but not girls (think of the differences in things like Boy Scouts vs. Girl Scouts) girls aren't even aware of these things to become interested in them until they are way behind the boys. This isn't people telling girls they can't do something, but it is discouraging them and putting them at a disadvantage.

      I am against pushing anyone into a field they don't want to be in. I also don't think the engineering field (or any field) should be 50/50, that is just an arbitrary number, but I do think that a higher percentage of girls/women would be interested in and excel at the field if they were exposed to and encouraged in it in the same way boys/men are. I think an equally valid question would be, "Were you ever exposed to the engineering field in a way where you had the opportunity to show an interest in it?"

      • I agree with you that inactive discouraging could be a problem. I had not given any consideration to the potential of inactive discouragement but it sounds like something we all need to be careful to avoid.

        I think that there is a bigger issue/flaw with our public education system than boys vs. girls though when it comes to STEM. Look at this link PRB Workforce charts that shows total workforce percentages in these fields and also the chart that shows foreign born US STEM workforce numbers. US schools are turning out ~5% of students into STEM fields. Foreign born students pursuing STEM make up ~20% of total workforce. I love that most everyone in the world has access to this stuff but I think it speaks poorly for our education system when we see the total numbers. Perhaps by fixing the education problem it would also correct the disadvantage girls experience entering this field?

        To answer your question about being exposed to the engineering field... Yes, my father is an electrical engineer and I had a soldering iron in my hand at 5 years old. I also have 2 younger brothers and no sisters. I am the only one who showed interest and pursued electronics.

    • I have taught plenty of high school classes where the girls were the best calculus students. I have also talked to them later when they have careers after college. A good number of those who chose engineering or physics did not like working "in the trenches" and went into other fields like patent law or the stock market analyst jobs with serious math.

      I think here is something about the way men communicate when they are working together efficiently that feels natural to a low proportion of women. Striving for a new norm potentially will make everyone uncomfortable at work. It needs more serious study, like by some very sharp cultural anthropologists (who can separate culture or nurture from nature).

      • I'll be brutally honest - one of the biggest reasons girls drop from engineering/physics in college is most likely the guys. Sure it's been over a decade since I went to college now (I was a Computer Science major), but it still makes me cringe when I think of how girls were treated by many of their male peers in the intro classes. Back then I was new to this country and just kept my mouth shut, but now I sure wish I hadn't. The only girls who stuck with it were the thick-skinned ones who straight up told the guys (over and over) they weren't interested, and that they didn't need help to understand concepts they had already grasped.

        For that matter, this problem doesn't only exist in the STEM world. Go to your average Magic the Gathering tournament and watch one of the few girls play - you're pretty much guaranteed to hear "I can't believe a girl beat me" at one point or other. Guess why there aren't all that many girls who stick with playing?

  • I did not look at the article in question because NSFW, but from the caption in the picture, it doesn't show the men doing the work without Barbie. It specifically says "It will go faster if Brian and I help.". That's not saying they would do it for Barbie, but help with Barbie to make the work go faster. That's not showing any type of gender inequality, but rather it is showing cooperation, coordination, and communication. You need those for good teams to work. The idea that Barbie, or anyone else, must be completely dependent or completely independent is false. Working together you can accomplish so much more.

    • Totally understandable not to go to the article, but the rest of the text of the book is there, and it's pretty bad. Barbie starts by explaining that she's "only" doing the design for the game, and the guys are doing all of the programming. At the end, Barbie presents her game to her class (and received extra credit!), but no credit is given to Brian and Steven. I agree that this was a great opportunity to talk about teamwork and cooperation, but they really dropped the ball on that as well, both by giving all of the technical portions of the project to the dudes and by failing to represent it as a group activity within the classroom setting.

      • http://gamasutra.com/view/news/127717/PRACTICE_Do_Designers_Need_To_Be_Programmers.php Maybe we should ask the game designers what that quals are instead of assuming?

        • It IS true that the qualifications to be a game designer (what Barbie is working on in the book) and the qualifications to be a computer engineer (what Barbie is supposed to be according to the cover of the book) aren't actually the same. That is one more of several problems with the book, not an argument against the concomitant problem adressed by this post. There are a number of ways that this book misrepresents technical fields while trying to teach girls about them, and they are all unfortunate.

  • Just to tag in with my own $0.02. Couldn’t you interpret Barbie’s exchange as the author’s encouragement of collaborative work? It doesn’t make a difference which combination of male and female, three people working on a project is much more efficient. BTW Logic is gender neutral, but understanding the genders is not logical. :)

  • The funny part is it was written by a woman! And I don't think "computer engineering" has much to do with writing code for a game.

  • It is a doll Alina. If you want a role model I might suggest your mother or some other REAL person. Not someone that is a piece of plastic nor a fictional character on TV. Better yet just figure out what YOU want to do and go do it. If you are the first then there are no role models. Of course if you are not the first then you might come up with a better way.

    Bottom line care less about what people think and more about who you are. In the end you will be happier and likely admired more than if you try to fit a mold.

  • Alina, I wonder if your reaction would have been the same if Barbie had solicited the help of females instead of males. Remember that you cannot influence the world to be sex-neutral unless you are sex-neutral yourself.

    Feminism doesn't balance chauvinism - its just the flip side of the same error. It's just tug-of-war on the other end of the rope. If the rope breaks in tug-of-war, both sides fall down, because neither side is standing up straight.

    The tech world is a meritocracy for the most part. Smarts and hard work pay off for males and females alike. I encourage you to ignore the male-female workplace struggle and just be a good engineer.

  • No I will not stand for this. I was under the impression that SparkFun was a place to tools and solutions, not complaining. You say you was never actively encouraged, but what are you doing here? More and more resources have been popping up recently specifically for girls in technology and engineering, and as a male engineer I will not put with any of my female counterparts writing articles like this instead of ones showing girls what they can do and giving them resources to succeed. There is literary a Society of Women Engineers and an organization called Girls who Code, at minimum these should be added to the article.

    For any girls reading this who love science and engineering and want more resources, ISU WISE has a whole resources page for all ages here: http://www.wise.iastate.edu/resources.html. And a couple Google searches will turn up many more.

    • Thanks for kicking us in the .... on this. You've gotten me thinking and planning a new post on exactly that.

  • Thanks for shining the broad light of day (and reason) on this trash. I've been cringing at the 'Barbie' aspect of American culture basically forever. I never understood why my wife bought them for our two daughters. Fortunately they grew up fine with no foolish ideas about gender - good for them! So exposure to Barbie is not the death knell as I thought it would be.

    One good sign: click on the Amazon link for that book and see that out of 115 reviews, 103 of them are 1 star - the lowest possible.

    • The Amazon reviews are very encouraging! It reminds me of the fantastic reviews on the "Pens for Women". We can only hope that the message of our discontent is received loud and clear.

      • Well, the story has gone viral. It's been on 4 or 5 clearing-house websites. I went back to Amazon to see if the reviews have change any --- they have; the page has been taken down. Going to the publisher site, there is an apology and a statement that they are going to re-write the book.

        • It doesn't always work out like you might think...

          http://www.chillhour.com/hell-in-the-doll-house-ken-does-not-like-barbie

  • WHAT is going on behind that monitor? Some kind of monstrous N64/Playstation hybrid with a pink and white SCSI cable coming out?

  • There is another way to look at this. Perhaps the tech savvy people in this did not have time to teach Barbie to perform the operations necessary. Even Barbie may be pressed for time in this situation and is turning to colleagues who specialize in something she is not totally familiar with. Like the assignments are due NOW. So the basis of this article assumes a mindset that may not even exist in the mind of the author. The comic even shows them saying if they "help" it will go faster. They did not say do it "for" her because she is a blonde bimbo.

    If you assume the worst of other people they will always be viewed with an air of contempt and all things are suspect that they do.

  • I'm rather disappointed you'd even bother to write about this. I visit sparkfun.com to learn about and buy electronics, not read an angry female's rant about a doll's acquiescence to men about the use of technology.

  • Alina, not defending the book at all...trash is trash. But, there are some lessons to be learned from trash even.

    1. Coding a game is usually never a 1 person job. The best games have entire teams of coders working on them.
    2. She probably could have fixed the laptop on her own. No, correctly stated, she SHOULD have fixed it on her own. Using speed as an issue misses the point of DIY, learning from your mistakes and the joy of having accomplished a goal on your own.
    3. Even the most iconic "role models" can get things wrong. Setting good examples for our young people starts with us as parents. I am a father with 2 young ladies and a young man to raise. I try to get them interested in electronics and the maker mentality, but one thing I have learned is that you can't force them to it. My middle daughter was really into Barbies at one point. If this book had been out when she was still into it, I might have bought it for her, but then I would have also sat and explained the parts they got wrong to her.

    • Regarding 1: Very true, but the fact is that the book title misconstrued Barbie's role in the production of the game.

      If the book title was Barbie: I Can Be A Game Designer, there wouldn't have been an issue. However, you cannot be a computer engineer and NOT know how to program.

  • I am so tired if these reactionary blog posts that don't do basic logical analysis, and instead are lead by emotion. I doubt that the majority of these people have worked in a collaborative software development environment.

    Fact is that it's unrealistic to expect I've person to be both a great designer as well as a great programmer, and the fact that the authors recognised this should be celebrated, as well as the collaboration she exhibited with her male peers. In fact, she showed great business sense by contracting people who had more experience than her in order to get a product completed.

    Why should any of this be vilified?

    • Dia had a fantastic response to this in a post below. I'll just quote it here.

      Totally understandable not to go to the article, but the rest of the text of the book is there, and it’s pretty bad. Barbie starts by explaining that she’s “only” doing the design for the game, and the guys are doing all of the programming. At the end, Barbie presents her game to her class (and received extra credit!), but no credit is given to Brian and Steven. I agree that this was a great opportunity to talk about teamwork and cooperation, but they really dropped the ball on that as well, both by giving all of the technical portions of the project to the dudes and by failing to represent it as a group activity within the classroom setting.

      • I dont see anything wrong with her saying shes only doing design. She was. Its not like she was saying design is a less skilled part of the process. And contractors are almost never credited with their participation in a project, unless the producer specifically decides to do so. Thats just the way it is.

        The argument could be made that this is a kids book and not a how-to business management course, but I dont really buy that either to be honest.

        I think people are reading way too much into this whole thing.

        • What's wrong with it is that the title of the book isn't "I Can Be A Game Designer!" It's "I Can Be A Computer Engineer", so she should have been depicted doing the computer engineering work.

          • YES.

            Also - there would be nothing wrong with her saying she did game design (the "ONLY" conveys something else) in a book that says, "I can be a game designer!" But just as "I can be a surgeon" probably wouldn't show a surgeon not being able to unclog a drain, change oil in a car, or represent a client in a law case, an "I can be a game designer" shouldn't show "But I can't code, and am someone who knows so little about technology that I spread viruses and take credit for other people's work." Hardly a flattering picture for game designers.

            The book was sexist. That's obvious.

  • I met Dr. Grace Hopper on a couple of occasions, when she was on speaking tours. She told a story about a project for the Navy, in which she had a Data General minicomputer with about 16K of memory. She told the Navy she could build the project using the DG machine, and they had doubts. She reminded them that she and a small team had built the first COBOL compiler on a smaller (4K, if I remember right), so not to worry. Later they named a warship after her!
    The moral of that story, if there is one, is that if you tell a smart woman she can't do something, you'd better step out of the way!

  • Grace said, "The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, "Try it." And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances."

  • http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/10/06/345799830/the-forgotten-female-programmers-who-created-modern-tech

  • Is no one else bothered by the fact that she is a "computer engineer" that is programming games? Last I checked computer engineers do electronics or embedded, rarely do they program something as high level as games.

  • This cracks me up. The book is funny because there is an element of truth to it.

  • In Computer Class, the pink binary numbers shown on the projector equal 'Barbie' in ASCII. So far, that's about the only thing I've seen that could be called accurate. I think I would really enjoy beating the nonsense out of this book in public but just the other day I saw a thing that said "don't talk about what you hate, that's boring. talk about what you love and shut up about everything else". I decided they were right, so while I agree with you, I also agree with some of the detractors here on some points. IMO the lesson here is that this long after the controversial "Math class is tough" line in a talking doll, Barbie still can't be trusted. I'm a 35yr male, so why do I even remember that? And as for what I love... Girl Genius. Far from educational, but hey-- it doesn't pretend.

  • Barbie ought to meet Adele Goldberg. Adele ran Xerox PARC during the banner years, co-invented Smalltalk-80, and is an ACM Fellow. Adele's boyfriends ask her for help.

  • Why expect anything more than this from Barbie?

  • The fact SparkFun posted this article is a terrible shame. I don't come here for social commentary. There's plenty of outlets on the 'net for that.

  • From the caption all I see is the usual teenage stuff:

    "Barbie, I really like you and I don't know how to show that. Can I use an excuse to hang out a little?"

    "Sure Steven, as long as I include Skipper so this doesn't look like a romantic response."

    "OK Barbie. I'll agree to that typical courtship stipulation because there is no alternative."

    It is so strange that it has NOTHING to do with engineering problem solving? Don't you think the author nails it?

    • Creeper/stalker alert! Barbie wants help from 2 people to keep the one guy in check. I can totally see that.

  • This just came across my Twitter feed. I seems a female engineer went and rewrote the book to be not horrible http://www.themarysue.com/barbie-remix/

  • Well, you have to admit...that flash drive around the neck idea is pure genius! Way to go Barbie!

    sarcasm

  • It's hardly surprising seeing this from Barbie. Through and through, down to its roots barbie is all about the stereotypical, shallow feminine behaviors: being sexy, glamorous, fads, fashion, and appearance. As Susan so eloquently states in her oft-quoted "Girls and Software" essay, the course of events that deter girls from technical fields is set at an early age. It is not just a problem with this edition of a Barbie book, it is a problem with Barbie as a whole. And until our culture is willing to dump the entire "Barbie" mentality, all the affirmative action programs in education and the workplace will do little to help.

  • But this is and always has been Barbie. They are just trying to make her more relevant, but the whole market around Barbie has always been a self centered, blonde who just wants to make a fashion statement. (I use the blonde term to make a point about the era she comes from) I suggest people instead create a new character instead of trying to change the old. Book series that is open sourced?

  • That's just awful. It's hard to tell without reading the rest of the story, but could this be a problem with the author writing about what he/she doesn't know about? Barbie couldn't figure it out on her own because the author didn't know enough about software to write a plausible conflict/resolution? So instead, they opted to just have Barbie's more knowledgeable friends solve it for her?

    • It could potentially be that, but authors usually research what they're writing about. I don't find that to be a plausible excuse. Additionally, this book (and the series) is to inspire girls to be "anything they want to be". With a title such as Computer Engineer, you'd hope that Barbie would be doing something along those lines, not failing miserably and everything computer related.

      • It's definitely not acceptable. I kind of wonder what other stories in the series are like. When I was learning to code in school, I was writing code in Fortran to read in measurements of soda bottle caps, and my program had to test each cap to make sure it was within tolerance. Fascinating! Hard to make that appeal to kids. Barbie should have been the head of a student team of Bug Busters or something, and then they could have turned it into a detective thing.

      • They should research what they're writing about, but there's an old saying in Engineering: "should-es and is-es are two different things".

        Hmm... the thought occurs to me that we could say that "without research, it's more likely to be 'wronging' than 'writing'".

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