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The offensive passage from Barbie "I Can Be A Computer Engineer"
The offensive passage from the book Barbie “I Can Be A Computer Engineer”

Toy maker Mattel has worked hard in recent years to try to change the image of Barbie.

The latest fiasco certainly is not helping with that mission. A day after the Internet erupted in outrage over the Barbie book — I Can Be a Computer Engineer — the toy maker has apologized for the title and the book is no longer being sold via Amazon’s U.S. site.

The Barbie computer engineer doll
The Barbie computer engineer doll

The problem with the book is that it implies that girls are only good at design, and need to turn to the boys to do the actual coding. TechCrunch is absolutely right when they call this “cringe-worthy.”

Certainly, offensive to women coders.

Here’s what Mattel had to say in an apology on the Barbie Facebook page, which boasts more than 12 million fans.

The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.

Even with that mea culpa, I wonder how in the world Mattel or the editors at Random House let this book even get close to the printing press in 2010? After all, that was just four years ago, not really the dark ages.

While the Barbie book is gone from Amazon, the Barbie computer engineer figurine is still available. And some folks are obviously not pleased, venting in the review section.

One reviewer writes:

Wish I could give this 0 stars. As an engineer this and the associated book are insulting.

Another notes:

New computer Barbie designs but needs males to do the coding? – WHAT IS MATTEL THINKING!!! The first computer coders were women, not men. A woman, Ada Lovelace, invented the idea for general programming language in 1843, for crying out loud, and had other visionary ideas about what would become computing. Many educators are trying to bring women back into Computer Science – they are able and needed and only a tiny proportion of students. Not to mention “only” creating design? How second class can you get? Third class maybe?

Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Medlina Gates chair in computer science at the University of Washington, calls the doll, which is selling for $199 on Amazon, “hideous.”

“All you have to do is look at the doll to see what Mattel’s mindset was at the time.  The book reflects that mindset,” Lazowska tells GeekWire.

Interestingly, the dust-up comes at a time when the tech industry is grappling with diversity issues. Rev. Jesse Jackson just announced that he’ll be speaking about diversity in the tech industry at an event in Seattle on Dec. 2.

And the controversy comes a day after released a new effort to encourage girls to code, based on the Frozen characters Elsa and Anna.

Meanwhile, women coders are not pleased with Mattel. Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, just issued this letter to Mattel’s chairman and CEO Bryan Stockton.

Dear Mr. Stockton:

We thank you for Mattel’s apology for the stereotypical messaging in the book “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer.” We ask that you remove this troubling book from the nation’s bookstores (virtual and real) and take further steps to avoid this type of misstep in the future.

Games, toys, and media portrayals of boys and girls have great power in shaping children’s and parents’ beliefs about what boys and girls should or should not do. “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer” reinforces stereotypes about what kind of people create technology. The book implies that women produce stories and design, while men do technical work. In fact, no part of the book suggests that Barbie can do anything but use computers. Instead, boys have to come to the rescue of the helpless girl. This representation is not simply a misrepresentation, but is harmful to the young girls who love Barbie and read Barbie books, as well as their parents.

We suggest that you replace the book with a story showing boys and girls in technical roles, interacting and sharing ideas respectfully, and making equal contributions to design, story, and coding. We also suggest that you hire a social scientist to review the work of your authors and developers to ensure that the explicit and implicit messaging Mattel conveys is consistent with the national need to create and support a highly-qualified, diverse, and effective computing workforce.

NCWIT is an alliance of more than 575 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations working to increase girls’ and women’s participation in computing. Joining NCWIT can help Mattel to move forward on your promise to ensure that “All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girls’ imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”

Mr. Stockton, NCWIT has worked hard over the past ten years to reverse stereotypes. Books like “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer” reverse our progress. As a major manufacturer of toys, Mattel truly has a significant influence on “creating the future of play.” We hope that you will take steps to make that influence a positive one, living up to your mission to positively impact people and play responsibly. We ask you to follow the Mattel Code of Conduct: make the difficult and expensive decision “to do the right thing” by removing the book from bookshelves, virtual and physical, and make a positive impression on girls, their parents, and the national economy.


Lucy Sanders

CEO, National Center for Women & Information Technology

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