Bookkeeper, medical secretary, computer technician, college tutor, pizza delivery driver, copy editor. Sometimes I think my resume is the craziest in existence… except for Barbie’s.

Last week at Toy Fair, the nearly 51-year-old icon revealed her 125th and 126th career choices. One, based on what young girls said they wanted to be when they grew up, is news anchor. But the other is much closer to my heart: computer engineer.

By popular vote (last month on barbie.com), the valley girl has gone geek chic, with a sparkly Bluetooth headset, cubicle-shaped packaging, and a bubblegum pink netbook that spells out:

01000010 01100001 01110010 01100010 01101001 01100101

over and over. You guessed it: That’s the binary representation of “Barbie” in ASCII code.

Mattel consulted the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to outfit the doll, which, says the toymaker, will encourage “a new generation of girls to explore this important high-tech industry which continues to grow and need future leaders.”

They got that right. According to a recent special report by the San Jose Mercury News, women’s employment in Silicon Valley’s largest companies slipped to 33 % in 2005 from 37 % in 1999, with a similar drop in the number of women in management jobs. Even at eBay—whose former CEO Meg Whitman is running for California’s Republican gubernatorial nomination—women’s representation dropped from 44% to 37% in that time, and women in management slots fell from 36% to 30%.

Employment for African-American and Hispanic engineers also dropped. That’s frightening in a place where, when I worked there in 1995-2000, the most common Spanish word I saw in dot-com offices was basura—trash—to indicate that the night cleaning staff could throw something out.

Perhaps that’s why Barbie’s three-quarter-sleeve t-shirt, decorated with circuit-board patterns, is the sort of thing that was selling on ThinkGeek.com back before the 1990s tech bubble burst. Barbie needs to help recapture women’s tech-industry glory days from a decade ago—back when the only attention (read: flack) she caught from Silicon Valley was for her 1992 statement that “math class is tough.”

An aside: I actually have to agree with Her Plasticity on that. In my experience, math class was often harder than math itself. When I was taking trigonometry in high school, I received a mercy C for the year from a teacher who called me “hopeless” when I asked him for help in October. Then I took precalculus in college with an instructor who encouraged students to interact and ask questions, and got straight As. Taking all students seriously, “even” girls, gets results.

To really address the lack of encouragement for girls to enter engineering, Mattel needs to do more than print tiny t-shirts full of ones and zeroes while filling their online portal with connect-the-dots puzzles and “Race Car Cutie” games. How about some games on barbie.com that reward girls for improving the theoretical gas mileage of Barbie’s pink convertible? Or solarizing the Malibu dream house? Or even better, perhaps some real-life math and science scholarships for girls who rock the classroom?

Barbie’s a long way off from real-world role models like pioneering computer scientist Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. But who knows? Maybe she and her little pink computer will help produce a generation of Hopper’s successors.

Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the year of Barbie’s “math class is tough” quote as 2003. Touch typing is tough.

Contributor Rachel Rawlings turned 00101010 last week. Three of her computers run Linux; the other is just for games and iTunes.

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  • Kay Julia L. March 19, 2010 at 1:42 am

    Well-written, entertaining – and scary statistics. Thanks for tying these opposing trends together and making some pointed suggestions to Mattel.
    -Hoping to stay employed as a female geek!

    Reply
  • Elizabeth W February 24, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    LOVE it!!!!!!!!!! Great post, Rache!

    Reply