I was caught a bit off guard this January when I received an email from Randy Atkins, the senior media relations officer at the National Academy of Engineering. Although I had worked briefly last year at the National Academies before joining the Department of Defense, I had never met Randy. However, his name and voice I did know from listening to NAE Engineering Innovation podcasts.
Even more surprising to me was why he contacted me; he wanted ideas for what a Barbie doll would look like if she were a computer engineer!
You see, every few years, Mattel announces a new career for Barbie. This year, it was selected by online vote from five possible options: architect, anchorwoman, computer engineer, environmentalist, and surgeon. The vote was targeted toward young girls, but computer engineers and scientists—such as Systers (the world's largest email community of technical women in computing) and the Society of Women Engineers—organized their own online "get out the vote" effort.
When Randy emailed me, on a recommendation by one of my former co-workers, it seemed likely that Barbie the computer engineer would win. Mattel had asked Randy for some suggestions on what a young, trendy computer engineer Barbie might look like. It was 5 pm, and Randy wanted my ideas by the next morning.
I was excited by the possibilities that quickly came to mind. And I immediately knew who to contact for additional fashion tips: my electrical and computer engineering classmates from Carnegie Mellon. I wrote many friends I hadn't seen for years and received some great suggestions. Kerry (Kravec) Kelly (E'02) thought Mattel should consider a bright fun "bunny" suit for chip fabrication facilities like those once seen in Intel commercials. Katrin (Ambroladze) Wynne (E'03) suggested that a tech-savvy Barbie should have multiple flat-screen monitors and a smartphone. Kate (Williams) Meacham (E'01) proposed incorporating some fun interactive logic puzzles like a Rubik's cube or online games in the doll packaging so that girls could see not only that engineers could be accessible and hip, but also that problem solving itself can be fun.
By morning, Randy had plenty of ideas from me. Within another month, the final vote was in. Computer engineer Barbie won the popular vote. Through the NAE, I went through another iteration of feedback on Mattel's doll sketches. Although not all of the ideas I presented to Mattel made it to computer engineer Barbie, it was fun to be part of the process. The doll comes out this fall (and can be pre-ordered online). She'll be wearing a binary-code-patterned tee and equipped with all of the latest gadgets, including a smartphone, Bluetooth headset, and laptop travel bag.
Some might argue it's silly to get excited about a new Barbie doll. But, to me, she will help reinforce in math-loving little girls that they, like Barbie, can grow up to be computer engineers. Such role models are important because in recent years far less women than men are pursuing computer science degrees. What computer engineer Barbie will do, I think, is broaden the realm of not only what is possible, but also what feels accessible—being smart, confident, and tech-savvy without sacrificing femininity and fun.
—Erin Fitzgerald (E'02)
Erin Fitzgerald is an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the Department of Defense Basic Science Office. She develops strategic plans for future basic research investments. During her studies at Carnegie Mellon in electrical and computer engineering, she served as student body president.