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Mattel makes mistake (They should read the ITU report)

American toy maker Mattel recently apologized for their book “I Can Be A Computer Engineer,” published by Random House, depicting the female doll Barbie as an incompetent computer engineer.

The story starts out promising; Barbie has an idea for a video game but quickly swerves downhill. She comes up with colour schemes and hairstyles then is stumped when it comes to the “hard stuff” like coding. Now the low point, clearly she needs help! Two boys from her school have the skills and save the day. Did I mention the plot involves a pillow fight? From a continent that claims to give girls and boys equal opportunity more than anywhere else, why is this not eliciting more outrage?

The New Yorker writes that demographic reports published from the superpowers in the tech world (Google, Apple, Microsoft) have confirmed what everyone knows: tech is a man’s world.[1] Does it surprise you that the percentages of female computer-science graduates have halved since the nineteen-eighties?  It shouldn’t since early personal computers were basically toys and these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys. It became a narrative and defined who geeks were and what the techies’ culture was about. [2] It did not involve girls. Parents were unconsciously making a decision that a computer was a boy’s toy and so began a generation where the geeks of the world would end up designing software and hardware for the world.

While the tech industry claims it is a meritocracy, evidence differs in the way the industry advertises, hires and promotes. Unconscious and deeply imprinted biases continue to shape how people are hired and their career track. Women still participate significantly less in the ICT sector and yet their share in employment is increasing in most countries. Estonia and Hungary are clearly above the OECD average, with women accounting for over 40% of ICT sector employment. The picture is somewhat different for ICT specialist occupations; the highest shares of females working as specialists are in the United States (almost 25%), followed by Iceland, Finland and Hungary (over 18%). In contrast, the share of women employed as ICT specialists in Turkey, Luxembourg, and Austria are the lowest among OECD countries. The manner in how women are criticized and the language that is used to describe them continues to be gender biased. And yet study after study has provided evidence that gender diverse teams out perform single sex teams. So what’s the solution? The discourse needs to change at home, around the dinner table, in education around the computer terminals, and in the workplace at the boardroom and design tables. The choices made by policymakers, enterprises and individuals on investment in education and training must strive for gender equality, that is, to give women the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.

Sounds straightforward right?   The most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human capital and talent – the skills, education and productivity of its workforce. Women account for one-half of the potential talent base throughout the world. Closing gender gaps is therefore not only a matter of human rights and equality; it is also one of efficiency and economic productivity. To maximize competitiveness and development potential, skills need to be seen as a key part of an economy’s infrastructure, and the stronger infrastructure becomes the more robust and resilient the economy will be in response to opportunities and challenges.

NID was commissioned to research and author a report for the ITU: A Bright Future in ICT’s: Opportunities for a New Generation of Women. Our findings provide evidence of a range of initiatives already underway to support girls and women in the ICT sector as more governments and businesses recognize the importance and necessity of taking very deliberate steps to hone talent. There is an exciting and growing movement for girls interested in STEM (Science, Technology, and Engineering & Math). The website Girls in ICT provides links to scholarships, camps, courses and other opportunities and Barbie is nowhere to be found.

Where does this leave us? The Mattel book, part of the Barbie: I Can Be A – fill in the blank – series has since been reworked and according to Mattel “all Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girls’ imagination and portray an empowered Barbie character”. This is a start but it`s not enough. We need to continue to question and change the narrative, at home, at school and when and how we consume.



[2] When women stopped coding.

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