Who said it's a Ken's world? Meet Computer Engineer Barbie
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Posted by: jennifer punch
Retrieved from: http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_16643383?source=rss
Julia Prodis Sulek
Posted: 11/17/2010 09:49:51 PM PST
Updated: 11/17/2010 11:26:07 PM PST
This was no Malibu Barbie event. After all, this is Silicon Valley, so it's only fitting that the unveiling of the latest incarnation of the cultural icon be geek chic.
Wearing a T-shirt with a binary code pattern, a hot pink laptop and matching reading glasses and a Bluetooth smartphone in her ear, "Computer Engineer Barbie" was launched Wednesday at the Microsoft Mountain View campus with 30 excited Girl Scouts.
At a time when fewer than 10 percent of American engineers are women, the Barbie's goal is to encourage little girls to consider careers in engineering and science.
Still, one mother admitted early on feeling conflicted about taking her first-grade daughter to the event, even if it was for Girl Scouts. And a female engineer at the corporation who showed up to help the 7-year-olds work on computers to earn merit badges considers herself "kind of an anti-Barbie person."
"It isn't a vector that would have worked for me," said Beth Daggert, 40, sounding very much the senior software developer at Microsoft.
But the little girls from East Palo Alto and Oakland, "Brownies" wearing their brown sashes and badges across their chests, were thrilled. "I like all her stuff," said Julia Mortensen, 7, from Glenview Elementary in Oakland, "her computer and her little phone."
Mattel worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineers to make sure she looked fashion appropriate.
But it's not as though Bay Area girls don't have living role models here in Silicon Valley. Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina come to mind -- oh wait, maybe they represent a "political candidate Barbie." But surely Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president for search products, is living proof that engineers can be fashion forward.
Mattel says the latest Barbie launch certainly isn't the first encouraging women to aim high.
"We sent Barbie to the moon four years before Neil Armstrong went to the moon" as "Miss Astronaut Barbie" in 1965, said Stephanie Cota, a Mattel marketing executive. "In 1984, we had CEO Barbie. And Barbie ran for president 15 years before Hillary Clinton ran. We really believe that role-play ultimately leads to real life."
Still, even at Microsoft, which runs a "Digigirlz" program to motivate girls toward math and science, female engineers are scarce in some departments. Daggert says she is the only woman on a team of about 20 who work in a "deeply technical area of the Windows operating system."
In her previous assignment designing Microsoft Office products, the ratio of women to men was about 1 to 5 -- and most of those women were younger than 25, she said, an encouraging trend.
"Sometimes it's hard to be the only woman in the room," she said. And if these little girls are motivated by Computer Engineer Barbie to join her ranks, she said, more power to them.
The latest Barbie was born after an online contest for girls and women to choose Barbie's 126th career. Girls voted for "news anchor" as their No. 1 choice, while women voted for "computer engineer."
So Mattel made both to launch this year.
Before the Brownies could open their bags, they sat through a lesson in Internet safety and listened to Jhilmil Jain, 32, talk about designing computer games that use voice activation technology at Microsoft.
As one mother, Jo Mortensen, put it, girls this age aren't aware of any limitations society might place on them.
"I was happy to hear my daughter wants to be a scientist," Mortensen said when she overheard her daughter answer a question. "Last year she wanted to be a rock star."
One girl, Helen Von Kugelgen, said that when she grows up, "I want to make cupcakes."
There's certainly nothing wrong with that. As the Mattel executive put it: "If one minute a girl wants to be a ballerina, the next a princess, then a mermaid, then a president, Barbie allows girls to do all those things."
Funny, the personal specialty of Marissa Mayer from Google? Cupcakes.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.