Wednesday, November 19, 2014

On Barbie and Glass Ceilings

Look at this face. Just look at it. This, readers, is Mattel's latest salvo in the fight against sexism and gender stereotypes. Computer Engineer Barbie. Those pink glasses are coming for you, male majority in IT!

I bit on the news link in my Facebook feed, finding myself curious how the Barbie franchise has been taken down the tech road. As someone who has been a part of designing and developing courses about information technology for young adults, this story was of unique import. There are many efforts out there right now to get young adults - or more specifically, teenage girls - interested in STEM fields as a viable career path. This is a good thing of course; women are underrepresented in IT, and getting young girls and women to consider a career in tech helps break the popular conception that IT and its many well-paying jobs are just for geeky, nerdy boys.

But the computer engineer mold cast for this Barbie is downright shameful, and indicative of the kinds of subtle/not-so-subtle sexist narratives that have come in for significant criticism lately, particularly in the still unfolding fallout from the gamergate scandal in the video game industry. Barbie's goal starts out innocently enough, with her wanting to learn how to program a game. The net result of her whirlwind education on the subject, though, is two male classmates essentially doing all the work for her as she spends next to no effort trying to learn the subject, all while botching multiple computers with viruses due to her lack of even basic computer skills.

Mattel has swiped utter defeat from the jaws of (what should have been) an easy victory.

How does a toy designer move so swiftly from lofty goal, to propagating stereotypes? What are young girls to make of a "role model" that constantly plays damsel in distress? Mattel has apologized for this particular Barbie outing, promising to do better next time. But, there's something in this that whispers some wisdom about checking assumptions, our perspective, and what we think we know at the door.

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