Scientifically Blonde | Beyond Computer Engineer Barbie
Engineering programs have to increase efforts to attract females
February 26, 2010, 3:31 am · Updated February 26, 2010, 12:00 am·
Barbie’s gone geek and she’s all about the binary. Earlier this month, Mattel announced that Barbie’s new career would be none other than a computer-science engineer.
With sparkly black leggings and a form-fitting shirt adorned with neon binary code, Computer Engineer Barbie may not be the most accurate representation of women in the profession — but her outfit isn’t the only thing that misses the mark.
Barbie may have a newfound interest in engineering, but studies show that today, female interest in careers of “hard science” remains low. In a written statement, Nora Lin, president of the Society of Women Engineers, applauded Mattel for introducing Computer Engineer Barbie, saying that “As a computer engineer, Barbie will show girls that women can design products that have an important and positive impact on people’s everyday lives.”
I’m by no means knocking Barbie’s new career choice, I just think it’s going to take more than a doll bring about the gender balance we need.
According to Michelle Grab, director of Penn’s Advancing Women in Engineering program, for the past 20 years or so, the national average of women engineering undergraduates has remained at a reprehensibly low 20 percent. Here at Penn we do a bit better, standing at about 30 percent, but women are still clustered in fields like bioengineering and remain relatively absent from areas like computer science or mechanical engineering, Grab said.
There are a ton of reasons why this gender imbalance gets me so hot under the collar. For one, it’s just not right that this entire domain seems off limits to girls. Everyone knows that anything boys can do, girls can do. For another, we’re shutting out an entire pool of sharp minds from the field. If we want the best and the brightest engineers, we can’t only be looking at half the population.
Penn’s numbers are still too low, but at 10 percent higher than the national average, we’ve got to be doing something right. Current initiatives focus on making girls able to see themselves in the field, Grab explained. “There’s a lot of research that says that if you can’t mentally picture yourself doing something, because you don’t match the typical image of what comes to mind, you’re much less likely to do that.”
With a waist the size of dental floss and a cascade of platinum-blond hair, I’m not sure girls can match the image of Barbie, either. Penn initiatives target girls in middle school — the critical time when the gender imbalance begins to emerge — bringing girls to campus for sleepovers with upperclassmen and science summer camps, Grab said.
While taking a quick break from studying for (not kidding) a computer-programming test, Engineering sophomore Michelle Calabrese told me why she decided to take the path-less-travelled.
“My entire life people have always underestimated me because I’m blonde and girlie. I was always good at math and science, and I wanted people to take me more seriously. By going into engineering, I can do something real. I don’t have to be the dumb blonde girl,” she said.
But according to Grab, most girls don’t have this independent drive to pursue engineering. The number one predictor, she explains, of whether anybody becomes an engineer is if they’re encouraged. “It’s not that teachers are discouraging girls from engineering, but they wouldn’t say ‘you’re really good at math and science, you should pursue that’ like they would with boys,” she said.
So if Mattel really wants to help encourage girls to pursue engineering, they might have more success if they just got Teen Talk Barbie to say, “Become an engineer.” Until then, engineering programs all over the country have to step up their recruiting initiatives.
Sally Engelhart is a College sophomore from Toronto. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Scientifically Blonde appears on alternating Fridays.