Barbie book about computer programming tells girls they need boys to code for them

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Rob Moran

Barbie with her tech saviours, Brian and Steve.

Barbie with her tech saviours, Brian and Steve.

In recent years, Mattel has made attempts to transform Barbie from pin-up to empowering female role model - just look at their 'Entrepreneur Barbie', for example, complete with tablet, smartphone and a LinkedIn account. But a recent installment in their ongoing Barbie: I Can Be... book series seems to have missed the memo, inadvertently telling young girls that they can't be game developers or programmers.

Titled, somewhat ironically, Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer, the book - published by Random House - finds Barbie struggling with game design and forgoing coding, infecting her sister Skipper's laptop with a virus, and ultimately chasing down the help of two guys - Brian and Steven - to help her finish her coding assignment and fix her sister's computer.  

"I’m only creating the design ideas. I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!" she says, during a particularly not-empowering segment of the book, before ultimately stealing solo credit and concluding with the feelgood lie, "I guess I can be a computer engineer!" 

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Overnight, comedian and TV writer Pamela Ribon tore through the book in a much-shared blog post titled 'Barbie F*cks It Up Again'.  

"We knew we had to share this with you, because if we didn’t, we’d be saying it was okay," Ribon wrote in the post. "We couldn’t just roll our eyes at how insulting this book is, how dangerous it is for young minds, how it’s a perfect example of the way women and girls are perceived to 'understand' the tech world, and how frustrating it can be when nobody believes this is how we’re treated."

Ribon's friend Helen Jane - a former programmer - further articulated the extent to which the book highlights and promotes the marginalisation of women in the tech and engineering industries. 

"Steven and Brian are nice guys, I’m sure. But Steven and Brian are also everything frustrating about the tech industry," she wrote. "Steven and Brian represent the tech industry assumption that only men make meaningful contributions. Men fix this, men drive this, and men take control to finish this. Steven and Brian don’t value design as much as code. Steven and Brian represent every time I was talked over and interrupted - every time I didn’t post a code solution in a forum because I didn’t want to spend the next 72 years defending it. Steven and Brian make more money than I do for doing the same thing. And at the same time, Steven and Brian are nice guys."

In encouraging news, the book has an overall rating of 1.2 stars out of 5 on Amazon, based on 67 customer reviews, where posts include "Sends unhealthy messages to young girls (and boys)" and "I can't be a computer engineer because I'm just a girl" (there's also the succinct review "Great for lighting fires during power outages").   

Although originally published last year, renewed focus on the book comes as the treatment of women in STEM has made headlines. Last week, Dr Matt Taylor - a scientist from the European Space Agency's Rosetta Project, which landed a space probe on the comet 67P - was widely criticised after he was interviewed wearing a shirt with naked women on it, leading to death threats against female tech writers. In the same week, a study by non-profit organisation Catalyst reported that 73% of female respondents noted "feeling like an outsider" in the science and technology industries. 

"Helen Jane and I were so livid after reading this book, we spent the first fifteen minutes spitting out syllables and half-sounds. We’d go from outraged to defeated to livid in the span of ten seconds," wrote Ribon. “I want this thing to start a meme of girls screaming, ‘I don’t need a Brian or a Steven!’”

Source: Daily Dot