Is Computer Engineer Barbie Going To Get More Girls Into Tech?

Computer Engineer Barbie debuted to much fanfare, but most girls voted for Mattel's flagship doll to be a news anchor. Eve Tahmincioglu, writing for MSNBC, uses the Barbie vote disparity to explore why there aren't more women in tech careers.

The Barbie brouhaha points to a key conundrum today when it comes to women and professions in science and technology. Many people see a need for more females in so-called STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math). But fewer and fewer young women seem to be gravitating to such jobs, thanks in part to the geek factor.

Sandra Guo, 22, always loved video games when she was in high school, but she never thought of pursuing a career in computer science because she felt it wasn't for girls. Even her mother discouraged her. "When I first enrolled in college she was opposed for me taking computer science as a major," she recalled. "She said I'd never find a boyfriend."

Tahmincioglu then reveals that Guo almost dropped out of computer science, due to feelings of isolation and that she was in a majority male space. Luckily, a mentor noticed Guo's growing discomfort and reached out with coaching skills. Guo is finishing her CS degree, and has now landed a job at Google.

Still, the proportion of women who enter and complete degrees in STEM professions remains abysmally small, leading experts and women's groups to devote resources to diagnose why so many girls stay away from these career paths. Tahmincioglu's article pinpoints some of the other ideas experts see as contributing to the tech careers gap:

Fear of failure and the lack of role models could also be driving the disinterest among girls.

Kristen Lamoreaux, founder of SIM Women, part of the Society for Information Management, an association of nearly 4,000 CIOs, offered a personal anecdote: "According to my 13 year old niece, she is not going into a STEM focused role because, ‘I don't like to be wrong and I want to stand out.' She said that when everyone in her Math class does the same problem, they all get the same answer. In Literature, everyone can write on the same topic, but variety is expected and it's possible to stand out based upon your talents."

The key to encouraging more gender diversity in tech may not just be perception based, but to also improve technical prowess and comfort in the space (as well as comfort with the core concepts) from an early age. The Georgia Institute of Technology recently launched a program to entice more African American boys into careers in computer science, using video games as a launching pad for more involvement in development and eventually programming.

In an academic paper, the four researchers explained that they decided to re-examine the normal assumptions around what gets people into computer science. After conducting interviews, they hit upon one illuminating comment:

Me and some of my black friends were talking about the other guys in CS. Some of them have been programming since they were eight. We can't compete with that. Now, the only thing that I have been doing since I was eight is playing basketball. I would own them on the court. I mean it wouldn't be fair, they would just stand there and I would dominate. It is sort of like that in CS.
– Undergraduate CS Major

The study looks at the relationship between play norms and CS norms, and makes recommendations on how to recruit and retain more African American talent in a tech space.

Lead researcher Betsy DiSalvo was interviewed about the project that stemmed from the Institute's research (Glitch Game Testers) and she discussed the merits of boosting confidence before sending the kids to a degree program.

"They saw what computer science is on several levels," said DiSalvo. "First, the workshops showed them they could code. Also being able to be creative by engaging in programming and problem solving motivated a number of students. Others just realized they could work in technology because they were doing game testing work as high school students."

A large part of the battle will be portraying careers in technology as both attainable and desirable to young women.

Tech industry searching for girls gone geek [MSNBC]
Gaming Masculinity: Video games as a reflection on masculinity in Computer Science and African American culture (Conference Notes) [Racialicious]
Can Video Game Testing Spark Interest in Computing Among Black Youth? [Newswise]

Earlier: Star Trek & Girl Gamers: Exploring The Gender Gap In Computer Science