Tech Barbie’s Backstory: How she went from “math is hard” to robotics engineer

Robotics Engineer Barbie (left) and Game Developer Barbie (right) CC-BY

Learning to code can be an exciting journey, but having to overcome stereotypes along the way makes it a more difficult one. Girls deal with this all the time, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Barbie has had the exact same problem. In 1992, Barbie told the world that she wasn’t good at math, and maybe this is part of the reason it took almost two more decades for her to get her first job in the tech industry. In 2010, Barbie took on her 126th new career, as a computer engineer. However, as for many women in STEM careers, her trials didn’t end with landing a job.

In 2014, writer Pamela Ribbon blogged about a book she’d encountered, Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. Unfortunately, an idea with such promise — a narrative about Barbie’s STEM career that might inspire girls to see themselves in it as well — not only failed to live up to this promise, but was so poorly executed it provided a negative message instead. In the book, Barbie explains to her sister that though she’s creating a game, she is only coming up with “design ideas” and will need Steven and Brian to turn it into a “real game.” She then infects both her and her sister’s computers with viruses — though not to fear, there is a happy ending when the boys both fix the computers and do the actual coding on the game. Not only does this narrative perpetuate stereotypes, illustrated by Barbie laughing at the idea that she might be capable of creating a game, but it portrays Barbie as incompetent at best, and entirely misrepresents what it means to be a computer engineer.

Computer Engineer Barbie in her natural (boxed) habitat CC-BY

Unsurprisingly, Ribbon’s blog post prompted a huge amount of backlash and critique — and one of those critiques was mine. I was finishing up my PhD in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech at the time, and in a fit of righteous creativity, I created a feminist remix of the entire book. In my version, Barbie really was a computer engineer, and instead of the narrative’s drama coming from computer viruses (and her incompetence) she was upset about sexist attitudes towards her role as a programmer. Moreover, though Barbie was coding, Steven and Brian still helped her, and the remix emphasized the importance of teamwork and design as part of the process, too.

a passage from the original book (top) followed by my remix (bottom), as illustrated in a Slate article

The reception to my remix (which is also a fantastic example of fair use!), along with other awesome critiques like the Feminist Hacker Barbie generator, was hugely positive. It went viral, and was featured in a lot of press, including NPR. Mattel also publicly apologized for the book’s message, and vowed to do better. Though such vows are often hollow, intended only for short term damage control, in this case Mattel followed through.

In 2016, Barbie landed another job in the tech industry — this time as a game developer. I wrote the first major press piece about the new Barbie, which was a huge improvement in many ways. Most importantly, now Barbie could actually code! Mattel consulted with female game developers, and it showed in the details — for example, programming books on her shelf and real code on her laptop (compared to the 1s and 0s on the screen of her computer engineer predecessor). In recognizing this step forward, I also lamented a missed opportunity — that rather than portraying coding as only a career aspiration, they might have emphasized that coding is something that girls of all ages could start learning immediately. Perhaps another book was in order, or a partnership with a kids’ coding platform?

Sometime later, I found out that Mattel was already thinking along these lines. They contacted me with an offer to help with a new book, one that featured Barbie learning to code, designed to teach computational thinking to kids. I jumped at the opportunity, and consulted on the storyline and exercises in the book, which became Code Camp With Barbie and Friends: Introduction to the Concepts of Coding. I also wrote an introduction to the book, which emphasized the creative and collaborative aspects of coding, and encouraged young readers to start their own coding journey.

my introduction in Code Camp with Barbie and Friends

The book was released earlier this summer in conjunction with Barbie’s newest job in tech — robotics engineer. Mattel also partnered with Tynker to deploy an intro coding course for kids featuring Barbie. Through writing real code, kids learn what it’s like to be a robotics engineer — without needing help from Steven and Brian.

I love this story of Barbie’s journey through computing, and by extension, Mattel’s journey. It’s a great example of “failing forward” — thinking beyond damage control for a mistake and towards real change for the better. I also love that my critique led to an opportunity for me to help fix things, which helps illustrate the power of creative criticism. I had the opportunity to tell this story a lot this summer (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), and it resonates with a lot of people.

one of my appearances on local news this summer

I’ve also thought a lot about my own journey through computing, and how I might have been influenced by greater representation of women in tech. I had a lot of Barbies when I was a kid. For me, dolls were a storytelling vehicle, and I constructed elaborate soap operas in which their roles changed constantly. Most of my Barbies dated MC Hammer because my best friend was a boy who wasn’t allowed to have “girl” dolls, and MC was way more interesting than Ken. I also wasn’t too concerned about what the box told me a Barbie was supposed to be; otherwise I’d have had to create stories about models and ballerinas and the occasional zookeeper or nurse. My creativity was never particularly constrained, but I can’t help but think that even just a nudge — a reminder that Barbie could be a computer programmer instead of a ballerina — would have influenced my own storytelling.

I first learned to code in college, thanks in part to a university-wide requirement at Georgia Tech, where I was a psychology major. I fell in love with computer science, though rather than switching majors, I leveraged my joint interest in psychology and CS into a masters degree in human-computer interaction and eventually a PhD. One of the reasons I love my field is that it highlights so many different parts of computing, not just coding. If I weren’t a professor, I might be working in technology policy, as a data scientist for a social media platform, or designing user experiences for a gaming company.

And thanks to my role in Barbie’s journey, I unexpectedly became a public voice for talking about representation of women in computing, and this in turn has influenced my career. Now an assistant professor in Information Science at University of Colorado Boulder, one of my research areas is informal computational learning among women, and I also help run the Aspirations in Computing awards (for high school girls) for Colorado. I’m also fortunate to be in a department with a gender-balanced faculty, and I find that my broader scholarly community also cares a lot about diversity, which isn’t true for all sub-disciplines of computing. I still occasionally fight my own small battles (like being labeled not a “real” computer scientist, or being misgendered in news articles about my research), but overall, I feel very positive about the journey we’re all taking towards better representation in tech. Barbie is only one small example, but I hope that she can help inspire a new generation of girls who might say “I want to be a computer scientist when I grow up — so can I start learning to code now?”