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I’m a Barbie

Girl…
in a CS World
Pamela Fox

Ignite Sydney 2010


The Next
A few Barbie
weeks ago, Mattel created an online vote for an incredibly important question: the
profession of the next Barbie doll. They included computer engineer barbie as an option,
which pretty much guaranteed that the entire online world would vote for that option.
The Vote
News of the vote spread virally - through Reddit, Digg, Twitter, and even our internal
Google mailing lists. Well, obviously, we won the vote, and we probably only hacked it a
little bit. So now, Mattel just had to figure out what Computer Engineer barbie would look
like.
The Result

This is what they came up with. She's got a pink laptop, pink shoes, skintight pants, & a
whole lot of binary code. Some people saw the new doll and accused Mattel of
continuing to uphold their bad reputation of encouraging stereotypes about females, like
being girly-girl and loving pink.
Breaking Stereotypes

But actually, Mattel breaking the stereotypes here. The stereotype of a CompSci girl now
is that they *dont* like pink. Here, Mattel is telling little girls that they *can* like pink and
be a computer engineer at the same time. That's an important message, and I want to
explain why I think so now.
Growing Up

my mum, my dad, & my 3 computers

Lets step back a bit, to when I was a little girl. I learnt programming in middle school
from my parents, both computer scientists. I had fun programming in my spare time, and
I thought my parents had a fun job, so I decided I would go to college and major in
computer science.
One of these things is not like the other…

When I got to college, I realized I didn't quite fit in with my peers. I remember being in
my freshman Comp Sci class on Halloween, and only the 2 girls had come in costume.
The other girl wore a Star Wars trooper costume. I wore demon horns, a miniskirt, and
boots. Oops.
After I eventually made friends with my classmates, they were quick to point out more of
more of our differences. They loved Star Wars; I loved chick flicks. The only game I
could beat was Solitaire; the only games they played were ‘real’ games.
Not Geeky
Enough

Once my CS friends realized I wasn’t a “true geek”, I wasn't invited to most of their
hangouts - D&D nights, sci-fi screenings, or gaming nights. Eventually, I just wasn't
invited to anything at all. I was sad, but busied myself with extracurriculars.
Earning Geek
Cred
In my masters year, I grew lonely and wanted to find a way to fit in more. So, I learned
how to program games, and I bought a few vintage gaming shirts (even though I'd never
played those games). That was enough geek cred to make the CompSci crowd accept
me, even if it was kind of faked.
“Sauce on Mouth”
Not Quite
(A classic Pamela look, from
years of practicing no table Right
manners)

My dad’s shirt from the 70s.


My closet was entirely extracted
from his.

The feeling of not belonging wasn’t exactly new to me. I was raised by british geeks in
upstate new york, and my siblings and I were often reminded by classmates that we
weren't quite right. We didn't say stuff the right way, we didn't wear the right clothes, and
we didn't have any "common" sense (arguably not that common).
So I didn't think about it much - this feeling that I didn't belong in CS - until I met another
group of people that felt the same way. That happened when I was given the opportunity
to teach web dev to a group of minority students for 2 weeks - where minority means
mostly women, blacks, and hispanics.
Dance-Offs!
I've met a lot of CS students in my time, and these ones were *different*. They used to
hold dance-offs after class – sometimes during! That inspired me to hold dance-offs at
conferences, because, really, every conference can use a dance-off, and it's a great way
to stall when you're having technical problems.
Stereotype versus
Reality

Anyway, they were asked to put on a poster session about their own ideas for increasing
diversity. There’s one poster that I always remembered, by one of my favorite students.
She had drawn a picture of a girl that was half-stereotype/half-reality, where the
stereotype was an introverted super-genius, and the reality was creative & social.
More Girls Like Her

She said that she just wanted more role models like the colorful girl -- she wanted more
examples that she could be that girl, and still be in CS. For girls like her growing up now
and deciding what they want to be, Barbie could serve as their role model, could prove
to them that it was possible.
Barbies in every Flavor

It’s not that I want the next generation of CS geeks to all wear pink. I just want to get rid
of the idea that all CS geeks need to like anything in particular - besides programming,
of course. Ideally, there would be computer engineer barbies in all flavors - punk, goth,
prep, jock, nun - and all races and genders
Occupation vs.
Personality

Generally, I think your occupation shouldn't be dependent on your personality and


hobbies. You should be able to be a fashionable construction worker, a cross-dressing
politician, a preppy tattoo artist, or a sex-crazy golfer. I know it's hard for us to
disassociate them, but as far as I can see, it's the only way to get diversity across the
board.
Diversity
is a Good
Thing

Diversity is important, particular in a decision-making group - like a profession or


professional team. In the Wisdom of Crowds, the author argued that one of the 4
elements needed for a wise crowd is diversity of opinion, to ensure enough variance in
approach, thought process, and private information.
That's just a theory, of course, so you don't have to believe it. But in my own experience
on project teams, it helps to have a variety of perspectives on a problem, and since
many CS projects are user-oriented, it also helps to have your project team reflect the
diversity of your users.
Welcome to
CS!

My basic point is that the Comp Sci world should be one that makes anyone feel
welcome, and that doesn't care what your "extra" skills are. I shouldn't have to defend
my Comp Sci cred just because I wear a miniskirt or can't get past the first level of Super
Mario Brothers. I should just belong, and so should any of you.
I want to thank Mattel for taking the first step, by showing that you can be a Barbie girl in
a CS world. Now, the next step is for all you with kids to buy that doll - modding as
desired - and encourage your kid to pick a profession regardless of their personality and
personal preferences.