For the first eight years of my life, Barbies were near the top of my wish list. My dolls, ranging from princesses to astronauts, were some of my most precious possessions, and I spent hours of my childhood crafting imaginary worlds for them.
Now, however, after reading the “Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer” book, I am saddened that I was ever devoted to a brand that perpetuates such sexist stereotypes. In the book, though Barbie is designing a game to teach children about computers, she nonchalantly asserts, “I’m only creating the design ideas. I’ll need Steve and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Mattel’s portrayal of Barbie as relying on the men in her life to do the technical work is indicative of a larger problem inherent in the tech world: women are by default thought to be able to deal with only the “pinker” elements of technology.
Though incorrect, this belief has been widely accepted, and not just in the tech world. Brands use pinkification as a marketing strategy to expand their clientele to women. Several years ago, the NFL released pink, bedazzled versions of popular jerseys in an attempt to expand their clothing sales. The campaign failed, and when it moved away from this “Pink it and Shrink it” strategy, sales among women increased by 40% in one month.
Recently, Bic pens incited the ridicule of the world after their release of a “BIC for Her” pen, one “designed to fit a woman’s hand.” As Ellen Degeneres satirically questions on her talk show, “what does that mean? So when we’re taking down dictation from our bosses, we’ll feel comfortable and we’ll forget we’re not getting paid as much?”
What is more shocking to me, however, is the fact that this strategy has also been taken up by movements trying to engage girls in STEM fields. Girls are told that if they get involved in STEM, they will have the opportunity to make innovative nail polish and showcase their creativity through design. What is often lacking is a mention of girls being able to build new products and work from the ground up.
It is this tactic that worries me the most. If girls are given such messages from a young age, it is understandable that they will themselves start believing that they are only capable of completing front-end tasks. It is a vicious cycle: these messages are disseminated to girls, they are ingrained in girls, girls begin acting along the lines set by these mistaken beliefs, and the cycle is perpetuated.
Which is why this idea must be eradicated from the rhetoric of our society. Girls cannot only be advertised the roles at the tip of the iceberg. They must be involved in, and thus excited about, every step of the process, from the hardware that creates a solid foundation to the front-end work that gives products visual appeal. Give girls themselves the choice to decide what aspect of the creation process they are most excited about.
Yes, Barbies were consistently on my wish list. But I never had a Ken doll. I used to imagine my Barbies as the heads of their families and the CEOs of their own companies. More than that, Barbies were only one of the toys on my list. As a baby, the only way my mom could get me to eat was by giving me a tool set to play with, and as a toddler, I always had Legos by my side. During the summer before 8th grade, I tried, and spectacularly failed, to build a tree house in my backyard. Nevertheless, it opened my eyes to how much I love being involved in every single step of the design process. Had I been told that the way I could pursue my passion for engineering was by making nail polish and makeup, I’m not sure I would have had these formative experiences.
I want to remove the idea that toys, and in the future jobs, are binary: the categories of “boy” toys and “girl” toys must be eradicated. I want to show girls that their interests do not have to be limited to traditionally “female” spheres. I want to show girls that they have the power to be More Than Just Pink.