How Barbie Stole My Computing Lessons

You cannot imagine my delight when I first laid eyes on LEGO’s new Ideas Women of NASA play set. It includes Margaret Hamilton, one of the foremost names in Computer Science. She was the lead Apollo flight software engineer, and someone whose story I would frequently pull out of the hat when preaching to students about the amazing things women have done in the world of computing.

When I taught Computer Science, Barbie would generally cost me one lesson per class per term. That lesson was meant to be about the history of computing. I had lavish resources on standby: a wealth of slides about Ada Lovelace. I love Ada Lovelace, and I’m not afraid to admit it. She was one of the first people to recognise that anything can be turned into data, making her one of the first computer scientists. But as a lady, she acted anything but: she addressed her letters to Charles Babbage as simply, “My Dear Babbage”; she was described as dressing less “well-appointed” than a maid; and she was known for swearing (she described debugging programs as “damnably troublesome work”). She was nevertheless a genius. She devised a machine conceptually no different to a modern computer: so complex that it couldn’t be built until decades after her death, and for which she devised programs 200 years before their time.

But this history lesson would, more often than not, turn into a rant about gender. Specifically, the role of women in Computer Science (and the generally low uptake of the subject among girls). This would almost always lead to a discussion of Barbie. Never one to avoid courting controversy when it comes calling, Barbie became instrumental in class discussions of gender inequality. We must never forget I Can Be a Computer Engineer. It was part of a range intended to empower young girls, to show them the amazing jobs they could do in later life. In the accompanying book, Barbie talked excitedly about the game she was designing, before she admitted,

I’m only creating the design ideas…I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!

When I told this story to my students, they were horrified. Genuinely horrified. Invariably, it was the boys who seemed the most affected. Read into that what you will. The very idea that a girl could need a boy’s help with anything was scandalous enough for most of them. What angered me the most was the implication that coding is for boys. I spent a lot of time promoting Computer Science to girls, and not once – never once – did I hear a single one say “it’s a boy’s subject”. Of the girls who had no inclination to pursue the subject at GCSE, the overwhelming reason was that they simply didn’t like it. Gender never came into it. The kind of attitude presented in Barbie’s book has no place in the 21st century (nor even the 20th, 19th, 18th…): if 11 year olds get it, so should Mattel.

The more recent Game Developer Barbie is a definite step in the right direction, although I notice this time there is no accompanying book. To be fair, there was little that could be done to save the original. Mattel have always had a duty of care to a generation of children who regard Barbie as a role-model. In a funny way, their efforts to empower girls to go into STEM didn’t entirely backfire: that horrid book proved to be a fantastic prop with which to get girls thinking about Computer Science – but it would have been nice to have been able to read aloud from that book without wincing and then immediately and profusely apologising.

Other key figures (sic) in the Ideas Women of NASA set include Nancy Grace Roman (she was instrumental in planning the Hubble Space Telescope), Sally Ride (the first American woman in space) and Mae Jemison (the first African American woman in space).

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