Earlier this week, we told you the story of Computer Engineer Barbie. Mattel may have developed and released the doll with good intentions, but the mission went completely astray with the accompanying book.
The main reason many readers took umbrage with Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer is its troubling portrayal of gender roles in the technology world. The book perpetuates the stereotype that men are coders who do the real heavy lifting, and women can maybe, possibly design the roughest idea of a game — with a few oopsey-daisies along the way.
Yesterday, Mattel offered an apology on Barbie's Facebook page. "The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010," the company wrote. "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 [sic] imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character."
Unfortunately, the saga doesn't end there. The book's publisher, Random House, doesn't list its publishing date until 2013. The book's page on Random House's website has been taken down, as has the product page on Amazon, which we were able to access on Tuesday. When contacted, Random House told ABC News it was discontinuing the book.
The book's author, Susan Marenco, told Kids Tech News that she didn't even receive emails from the editors about the book until 2011. The sketchy timeline of the book's development is not the issue here, though. Since news of the book went wide on the Internet earlier this week, Marenco has received hundreds of vitriolic emails.
She has since both defended and accepted culpability for her role in the book's publication. Marenco told Kids Tech News that she's both a feminist and a woman in tech. "She specializes in usability and for a while worked at Microsoft's usability labs in Copenhagen," KTN reported. Marenco has also witnessed the sexism in the technology world firsthand.
"I have seen the sexism in the computer industry and in Silicon Valley totally dominated by men. It's a boy's game," she said to KTN. "When I write, I think about this, and I try to replace the professional white males with Asian females."
Unfortunately, Mattel will always have ultimate control over Barbie and her image. "They can't get out of the groove of 'she's nice; she doesn't show anger; she doesn't show frustration,'" Marenco continued to KTN. She's written 40-50 Barbie books, and has received many comments from editors saying that the character "has to be more polite."
She told ABC News that her original assignment was to write Barbie as a designer, which she did. She's conscious of the stereotypes of women in technology and apologized for the book's final story. "If I was on deadline, it's possible stuff slipped out, or I quietly abided by Mattel without questioning it. Maybe I should have pushed back, and I usually I do, but I didn’t this time."
She also told ABC that she wishes she had made either Steven or Brian, the two programmers who handle the coding of Barbie's designs, female.
One of the great things about the Internet, though, is that people who offer helpful solutions rise above the haters and complainers. Casey Fiesler, a doctoral student in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech, took some time and rewrote the book. She posted a PDF on her website. Called Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer: The Remix! Now With Less Sexism!," Fiesler's new version corrects the assumption that Barbie, a female, would be a designer, and Brian and Steven, two males, would be the coders.
"The central problem with Computer Engineer Barbie is she’s just not a strong character. She has no faith in her own skills; she shows no knowledge of anything. She gets praise from Skipper for being an inspiration while not actually doing anything," Wu told us in an email. "I understand that this is a book for children. And, I understand that a non-engineer wrote [it]. But, it’s worthwhile to think about what the average woman who goes into computer science is actually like. We inherently like to tinker. We take pride in our ability to solve problems."
Wu said a lot of the reason the book hit such a nerve with women in tech is because of the unconscious bias in the field. "If you are a woman in software engineering, be prepared to deal with men that assume they know more than you on a daily basis," she told us. The idea that Barbie would merely come up with the ideas and let the boys do the coding was "a horribly dated message."
Despite the book's horribly misguided attempt, it's incredibly important to foster girls' interest in computer science, Wu stressed. "The power to engineer software is the power to create the modern world we all inhabit. It's how we define human interaction. It’s increasingly the basis of our economy. And, it’s so important women have a hand in creating that future with men," Wu concluded.
Hopefully, Mattel received this message.