Page last updated at 17:06 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Does Barbie's new geeky look fit with reality?

Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

Barbie, the toy doll that is a perennial favourite among girls, has been assigned a new career - computer engineer. But how accurate is the glam-looking tech support Barbie compared to real life?

Barbie in her tech support finery

She's got an impressive CV that includes everything from astronaut to racing car driver. But Barbie, the doll best known for her tiny waist and inexplicably high arches, has added another job to the list: computer engineer.

Her new occupation is the result of an online vote hosted by Barbie's makers, Mattel - and the doll itself was unveiled last week at the New York Toy Fair.

The new doll is decked out in black spangled leggings and a lime-green fitted tunic patterned with binary code, worn under a slinky waistcoat, with saddle-stitching detail. The ensemble is topped off with the requisite hot-pink accessories: glasses, watch and shoes. To emphasise her innate "techiness" she carries a pink laptop and sports a Bluetooth headset.

Slouchy jeans

And then there's the trademark lustrous Barbie hair - seemingly untouched by working days spent facing a computer terminal in a stuffy and dry working environment.

Rachel Andrew
Women find the need to become quite laddish...very geeky and not particularly feminine
Rachel Andrew

So would tech support Barbie fit in among the IT crowd in your office?

It's certainly a catwalk away from the slouchy jeans, T-shirt and trainers look sported by many of the men who dominate the information technology sector.

Web developer and former dotcom employee Rachel Andrew says, in style terms, computing is still a man's, man's, man's world.

"It's very much a young man's industry," says Ms Andrew, now director of Edgeofmyseat.com. "Women find the need to become quite laddish. You try and become very geeky and not particularly feminine."

In her former jobs, she consciously opted for non-descript clothing of jeans and jumper, so as not to draw unwanted attention or pointed comments.

Wedge strutting

In a seemingly unglamorous profession, Barbie's bouffant might also raise an eyebrow or two.

Tech support Barbie's accessories
Briefcase, pink laptop and comfortable wedges - tech support Barbie's accessories

While she appears to be taming her locks with a ponytail caught up in a hot-pink bobble, she still sports a long, glossy fringe swept to one side.

As anyone who works maintaining computers could tell you, Barbie would do well to invest in a hair band. It would keep her signature blonde mane from flowing into her eyes.

"It would be really impractical," Louise Collis, a quality assurance lead engineer, says of the Barbie coiffure. "You [would] spend half the time pulling it back from your face."

Even the shoes are unlikely to be seen on the feet of people who spend half their day crawling under desks or feeding cables through walls. While many of her real-life counterparts would be happy with a pair of comfy trainers, Barbie appears to be strutting about in a pair of pink wedges.

Louise Collis
You can still be trendy and work in a geeky environment
Louise Collis

While Barbie's look may be somewhat off the mark, its significance is being lauded by some women in the IT sector.

The doll's message?

"You can still be trendy and work in a geeky environment," says Ms Collis, who describes herself as a Barbie-esque 5'10" blonde.

Women make up less than a quarter of all IT professionals in the UK, and "computer engineer" isn't even a real job title in the industry. "It's a generic title for when we fill out insurance forms," Ms Collis says.

Specs cliche

The broader occupation incorporates everyone from help desk worker to software developer - jobs that don't generally seem to appeal to young girls.

BARBIE BASICS
Debuted in 1959
Named after creator's daughter, Barbara
Held 124 previous professions, including pilot and rock star
Has represented 50 nationalities and is sold around the world
Is the #1 worldwide toy

"We want girls to consider [IT] as a career, and not be turned off by the image… of a spotty boy sitting in the corner, unable to hold a conversation," says Karen Petrie, a computing lecturer at the University of Dundee. "[Barbie] is someone they aspire to."

Despite Mattel's claims that Barbie "can help inspire a new generation of girls to hone in on their computer skills and become a part of this growing profession", not everyone is convinced.

"As a career, IT probably sounds a bit dull and boring," says Katherine Coombs, a chief information officer. "I don't think the doll's going to change the world. It's when other women are working in IT, not a doll."

But computer professionals do think tech support Barbie could help change the perception of women in the industry, and make girls realise you don't have to eschew makeup and styled hair to work in the computing sector.

Barbie
Barbie's newest look is a far cry from the original

Ms Petrie says the the idea of Barbie being a cheerleader for the IT profession has been embraced by women who had never before owned a Barbie in their lives - herself included. And Ms Collis thinks the doll's appeal won't be limited to the pre-teen market - it could become a workplace mascot for female tech support staff.

But while the doll's main objective is busting computer nerd stereotypes, there is one that seems to have slipped through the cracks: those spectacles. An off-the-shelf geek association if ever there was one.

Eileen Brown, who blogs about women and technology, says she has received some "wry" comments about Barbie's new eyewear, along the lines of "of course she's wearing glasses."

"The only bit Mattel got wrong were the pink glasses," says Ms Brown, a former Microsoft employee and chief executive of Amastra.com.

And for all the accolades surrounding the new doll, there's one constant in the Barbie wardrobe that still rankles - all these years and jobs later, Barbie still wears quite a lot of pink.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I'm a woman with a Masters in Software Engineering, and I put my interest in computers down to using them from a young age - I certainly wasn't interested in Barbies! If it brings girly girls to computing though, fine by me. I also notice that the binary on the laptop reads "barbiebarbiebarbie" in ASCII. Nice touch.
Claire Q, Aberystwyth, Wales

I am also a computer engineer and it is hard to be taken seriously in a man's world. You don't need to flash your bits to do a good job. I don't find the need to become laddish or unfeminine but you have to be prepared to fit in and muck in, literally.
Julie, Chester

Hmm - seems to me her laptop is showing a "blue screen of death". Not a good sign for a computer engineer!
David, London

Of course she is wearing glasses. That's eye-strain from sitting in front of a computer all day.
Nicola Williams, Farnborough, Hampshire, England

At 51 years old, Barbie would probably never get an interview in today's job market because of the false assumption that youth is better, ignoring the fact that experience knows where the pitfalls lie.
Tony, Watford, UK

Having confidence enough in yourself and your skills to do your work whilst maintaining your own identity isn't a problem unique to women, but none of the successful Nerd Girls I know and work with feel the need to emulate the boys around them. We're in the minority in IT but that doesn't mean we need to mimic to majority in order to progress our careers.
Gabriella Davis, United Kingdom

As a professional physicist who has a fair amount to do with IT, I can't say I'm that enthusiastic about the new Barbie. You can't rework a caricature of womanhood with impossibly long legs, pert breasts, and glossy hair into some kind of equal opportunity role-model by giving her a laptop, clothes with circuit board motifs and bright pink (PINK!?!) glasses. She is still more about style and image than substance; it's just a tragedy that so many young women have adopted the same worldview.
Dr Heather Williams, Stockport, UK

Poor Barbie wouldn't fit in at our office. Nor would she be welcomed. There are many attractive young women who work in technical support here, most of whom are smartly dressed and take pride in their appearance. But anyone who arrived dressed like Barbie would be laughed out of the building.
Christy Andersen, Newcastle, UK

From my experience of seeing other women in the work place, this Barbie look makes it harder on yourself as a woman. Maybe in a decade or so it will change but not yet. You need to be approachable and confident, no one would take you seriously looking like that, half your colleagues would be too scared to talk to you and the other half would take a long time to gain their respect (which takes more time as a woman anyway).
Rachel, Southampton, UK

As an IT Security Consultant with a five-year-old daughter, I welcome any initiative to get women and girls interested in IT. My profession is one of the most proletariat you could find. It doesn't care what background you have or your physical, ethical or moral characteristics - we only care about whether you can do the job.
John, Cardiff

I wouldn't employ her. Her CV says she's had 124 previous jobs. It seems she can never settle in one job for very long. It suggests she isn't serious about choosing a career or she's incompetent.
John Byng, York, UK

Does she say "Have you tried turning it off and on again?"
Simon, Reduth

I am a female IT engineer, and with ease wear heeled shoes while crawling under people's desks. Nor do I find the need to tie my hair back, a swift sweep behind the ears leaves me able to conduct my job without issue. In fact I think I may just go out and purchase some pink wedges. I certainly will be buying a doll to sit on my desk.
Babs, Cambs

I don't wear make-up, just for special occasions, but it's the norm almost everywhere now. I get comments about not trying, but personally I think painting your face every day is a bit weird. But now it will be expected even in geek land. Oh no.
Sandra, Gloucester

I'm in IT Support and I have pink glasses... and also blue ones, green ones and black ones with wire hearts. What us girl geeks really want to know is where can we get such a cool binary t-shirt and more importantly, what does it say?
Eva B, Bristol



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