Many of us wonder where information management jobs are headed and how and where an iffy incoming talent pool will gather needed skills. We fret over our children’s lack of interest in science and math, and the corresponding education gap in this country. And how do we teach listening and communication skills and the timeless societal lessons of liberal arts for a new tech world that calls for many skills to compete? It’s a tough line to walk...
I could go on, but I digress.
The new Barbie is out.
Career #126 for the durable standard of girlhood is "computer engineer." She was announced months ago, but, believe it or not, Christmas season is nigh, stores are stocking and the marketing blitz has just begun.
By accounts, if kid pop culture predicts future zeitgeist, toy manufacturer Mattel may have done a decent job with Computer Engineer Barbie.
There are valid reasons I am eminently unqualified to judge Barbie's attire, presentation or the CV that goes into her biography. My first impression, from a publicity picture, was Friday casual but purposeful, with a laptop and notes jammed in her pocket. But I'll let wiser folks pass judgment (because I’m not a complete idiot).
I can refer to the research Mattel put into the figurine, and, equally interesting, the media interest that arrived with the new career. It’s no big surprise that chipchick or gizmodo or even PCWorld picked up the story, but I'm still digesting what was special enough about Barbie career #126 to draw the attention of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Carnegie Mellon University.
It turns out that a Carnegie Mellon graduate named Erin Fitzgerald was tapped by the National Academy of Engineering for a design project leading back to Mattel because it was deemed important to create a proper image for this particular role model.
Fitzgerald told an Associated Press reporter that the doll could be significantly influential to girls who might not relate to technical careers, that it was important to put "something fun" into their hand instead of trying to sell a "very dry subject with very little interaction or creativity" as apparently goes with a geek stereotype.
That hurts, but perception is in the numbers. The telling statistic Fitzgerald related was that just 30 percent of attending graduate students in computer science at Carnegie Mellon are women, though that figure is up from the 9 percent who attended in 2002. The mainstream newspapers took time to tease out similarly reflective numbers in their own coverage.
Fitzgerald, 30, said this reversal was promising, but we all know it's a tough role model to imbue. Information workers don't wear fire helmets or carry guns (hopefully) on the job. You don't see them in prime time dramas unless they're eccentric character studies straight out of central casting. A lot of those information workers suffer eye fatigue and wear thick glasses (Barbie does too) and some wear wrist braces for carpal tunnel syndrome (fortunately not yet).
The restrained stereotype is a reason to give Mattel props for not going to the lowest common denominators. No lab coat for Computer Barbie (she doesn't work in a wet lab!). She does carry a PDA, laptop and a clunky headset that appears to be Bluetooth. She has a look that says "productivity."
For better or worse, Fitzgerald says most girls already relate to the technology. The good news was that #126 was voted in by popular demand of Barbie cognoscenti, who chose "computer engineer" over architect, environmentalist, surgeon and news anchor.
Girls and boys replay what they see and hear with toys and accessories manufactured for the purpose. They talk to the stereotypes through the influence of their parents, siblings and eventually, the contradictions crop up and teach something.
Assuming that carries on, the next challenge for Mattel might be Multitasking Renaissance Barbie, the computer engineer who natively understands marketing, sales and accounting, can write reports, lead meetings and build consensus with charismatic personal skills.
For the boy or more pointedly the girl who digests that message, the future will be bright and upwardly mobile and very, very busy.
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