Barbie the Computer Engineer

in musings

So, Mattel is having an internet campaign for people to vote for Barbie’s next career, and one of the choices is “computer engineer.” Being in a computing field, and knowing many people concerned with the participation of women in computing, I’ve heard a lot about. And I’m seeing two reactions: enthusiastically encouraging people to vote for computer engineer, and sarcasm about Barbie convincing girls to become computer engineers.

Here’s the thing, though. I took my first programming class as a junior in high school, and I took it only because my father had been telling me for years that he thought I would like it. Every time my dad brought up learning to program, I resisted. He tried to convince me to learn Visual Basic when I was in middle school, and I ignored it. Every semester of high school, it came time to choose my next classes, he would suggest taking programming, and I would brush it off. He kept me telling me though, that he really thought I would enjoy it. I mean, it’s not just that he thought programming was a good thing to learn, or that it would be a good career move. The reason he wanted me to learn to program was because believed that I, being who I am, would like it.

And he was completely right! I loved that programming class, so I took the intro CS class at Grinnell, and then…I kept taking CS classes. Which I don’t know if I would have done otherwise. I might have taken intro to CS eventually, but not soon enough to major in it.

So, why didn’t I listen to him in the first place? Maybe something to do with the fact that I was teenage girl and he was my dad, but my dad and I have a pretty good relationship and I was never much of a rebel.* I resisted mainly because I didn’t like the idea of learning programming. To me, programming was something unbearably nerdy boys did, boys who never went outside and had no social skills. Programmers grew up to be Dilbert, and I did not want to be Dilbert.

Now, make no mistake. I was a nerdy child, and I knew it. But my concept of the kind of people who love to program was even worse. I was an awkward social outcast (less outcast by high school, but mainly because I’d found my kind among the band geeks), but I didn’t want to be one. I didn’t ever give up doing things I loved for the sake of being accepted, or force myself to do stupid things I didn’t want to do in order to look “cool,” but I sure wasn’t about to pick up a new habit that promised to draw me even deeper into awkward outcast-dom.

Of course, my dad works as a programmer (sort of; he’s not a software developer, he’s got a “works with computers” kind of job), and I knew that. He is, also, not an unbearably nerdy person who does nothing but program and play video games, and he’s entirely capable of normal social interactions. And I admire a lot of things about my dad, especially so as a young teenager, but one thing I was certain about was that I did not want his job. I just knew that his job was full of things that made him unhappy, and sounded suspiciously like Dilbert.

I don’t remember now how explicit those thoughts were, but I do remember very clearly that it was my emotional associations that put me off programming. I “had a feeling” it was something I wouldn’t like. Now, I’m not saying that I would have been excited to play with a computer engineer barbie, or that if I’d had one I would have jumped at the chance to program at an earlier age. I don’t remember my childhood ambitions being influenced by Barbie one way or another. But Barbie is not a nerd, she’s not a social outcast, and she’s certainly not Dilbert. I had well internalized all the typical programmer stereotypes, but Barbie doesn’t fit any of those stereotypes, and if she had been a part of my childhood, I would at least have had the opportunity to form a broader impression of what it means to “work with computers.”

I don’t expect a computer engineer Barbie to revolutionize women in computing. And I don’t expect women to disappear from computing without her - I made it, after all. But what about all the girls like me who don’t have wise and persistent fathers encouraging them? How will they come to the point where they’ll even consider that programming might be something to try?

I have no idea what my life would be right now if my dad hadn’t worn down my resistance and actually convinced me to give programming a try. I guess I would have just majored in psychology. And maybe I would have gone to grad school in psychology, just because I didn’t know what else I’d rather do, and that would have been a mistake. That first programming class led me to computer science, which led me to HCI, which lead me to discover that what I want to do for the rest of my life, with all my heart, is design. I don’t want other little girls out there to miss finding their passion in life because all they think about when they hear about computer science is Dilbert or the computer guy from Jurassic Park.

*The extend of my disobedience was generally not doing chores in a timely manner, and staying up past my bedtime to read. GO ON, READ SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS. ALL THE QUIET BRAINY KIDS ARE DOING IT. I was such an awkward little dork, and yet computer science was too nerdy for me. Seriously, this is a problem.