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Be Yourself, Do What You Love, Wear What You Want (Ada Lovelace/Coder Barbie/Mashable Follow-Up)

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Today, I’m guest posting on Mashable about why computer engineer Barbie is good for women in tech. I’m really proud of my article, so feel free to click over and read it in its entirety!

To summarize, critics have attacked the new computer engineer Barbie as being unrealistically feminine. But did you know that the very first computer programmer was a lady? Who wore frilly dresses and elaborate girly hairdos? Aw, yeah… ADA LOVELACE!!

Coder Barbie and Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer - which one is more "realistic"?

While my article focuses on the controversy surrounding computer engineer Barbie, I want to clarify my main point: everyone (male or female) should feel that they can be themselves while doing math, science, engineering, and technology.

Being Yourself
Many times, when I’m working with my math tutoring students, they’ll spontaneously create an awesome new problem solving technique. A student will stand up and map out an angle with their body by turning a certain number of degrees. Or bust out with new lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” in order to remember how even numbers work.

I know that the only reason my students feel free to do these things is because they feel totally comfortable. And they wouldn’t learn as much, or be able to solve problems as well, if they didn’t feel like they could do these things.

When you feel like you can be yourself, it’s easier to ask questions, challenge convention, and come up with intuitive new solutions. Most of all, when you’re comfortable being yourself, you can access everything within you, and you have much greater resources to solve all kinds of problems. If you feel like you have to act a certain way, or need to leave pieces of yourself at the door (maybe the parts that love pink), bits of yourself that could help you solve problems get left behind.

(Not only does this apply to individuals, it also applies to teams working to create products. Pamela Fox points out that one of the signs of a wise crowd is diversity of opinion—when everyone can speak up, even if they’re not in agreement with the majority. Having different kinds of people in computer engineering—or math, or science—makes for stronger products.)

I’m not saying that women must be fashionistas or wear pink or be “feminine,” but that no one should have to choose between being themselves and doing what they love.

Workplace Reality
Female readers with tech careers commented on the pressures women face in male-dominated tech workplaces. Tweeter nostruminc remarked, “Now what the heck is wrong with a pink laptop? NOTHING. But it is intimidating being the only woman in a workplace.”

A friend of mine–an electronic engineer who now engineers solar technology–elaborated: For her, the problem is old-school male-engineer-dominated workplaces combined with American workaholism.

She’s found that when she’s been able to work with more women and the new breed of male engineers who grew up with female engineering classmates, the teams are more fun and more productive. The difference really just lies in the culture of the workplace and how women engineers are treated by their male coworkers.

Stereotypes?
Also, some commenters basically suggested that Barbie, in any form, just perpetuates gender stereotypes: “Boys have Legos, Playmobiles, toy soldiers, trains, workbenches, and astronauts. Girls have princesses, kitchens, sparkly cell phones and baby dolls to push around and practice raising.” But Barbie actually broke the mold. She was one of the first dolls who, as a single career girl, didn’t have to take care of anybody else—or be taken care of.

Additionally, I’m going to speak from personal experience. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t want me to internalize any stereotypes, so they gave me both toy trucks and dolls to play with. But I just wanted to play with dolls. When they gave me both pants and dresses, I only wanted to wear dresses.

Instead of trying to push me to play with trucks and wear pants, they just encouraged me, my whole life, to be myself and follow my passions, however they evolved.

Passion Turbocharges Your Brain
And there’s a neurological basis for my parents’ approach. Po Bronson points out that letting kids follow their passions actually “turbocharges” their brains.

Regardless of our potential moralistic objections to Barbie (or Pokémon), when kids are doing something they love—no matter what it is or whether it has ostensible “educational value”—their brains get spritzed with dopamine, which “depolarizes neurons and improves their firing rate; their response to optimal stimuli becomes sharper, and the background buzz of relevant stimuli is quieted a little.”

Over time, the repetition involved in pursuing your passions assists the myelination process, which increases neural speed “100 fold.” And that’s why Po Bronson is encouraging his 5-year-old daughter’s passion for princesses and Supergirl.

For a great explanation of how passion can change kids’ brains, check out Po Bronson‘s Daily Beast Article about how dumb toys can make kids smarter–in particular, Pokemon. (However, as I learned after corresponding with him after writing this blog post, Pokemon and Computer Engineer Barbie are not parallels, because Barbie does not have something like Pokemon’s extensive taxonomy and math calculation.)

All kinds of Computer Engineers
To those “nay-sayers” who see Barbie as a “devil-doll,” Alison Lewis commented, “Just get the girl coding and making…use it to start a discussion about technology, sit a girl down and do a fun little program, make something with electronics, or talk about other women in tech and how wonderful they are.” Lewis also adds that you can always modify Barbie’s outfit and hair if you don’t like them.

As Pamela Fox points out, “it’s not like I want the next generation of CS [Computer Science] geeks to all wear pink. I just want to get rid of the idea that CS geeks have to like anything in particular—except programming, of course. Ideally, there would be computer programmer Barbies in all flavors—punk goth, prep, jock, nun—and all races and genders.”

Because what does a “real” computer engineer look like? Like whatever you want to wear.

Related Posts:
My Favorite Math Teacher Is a Woman
Tips for How to Help Your Kids with their Math Homework
On being yourself while doing math
On Optimal Challenge
Praise and Intrinsic Motivation–An Answer?

12 Comments on “Be Yourself, Do What You Love, Wear What You Want (Ada Lovelace/Coder Barbie/Mashable Follow-Up)”

  • Sue VanHattum on March 10th 9:06 am

    That Po Bronson article is right – we’ve gotta let kids follow their passions, it’s good for their brains. But Barbie makes me glad I’m not raising a girl. Her proportions are impossible. I would worry if my kid liked her, that she’d want to be skinny like that. Yuck!

    As a not-so-feminine woman, I most appreciate the space not to ‘wear pink’. I’m the only woman in my department who doesn’t wear skirts and dresses. The other 4 all look much more feminine. Thankfully, no one complains about how I dress. (But I heard about it at many jobs in the past.)

    Thanks for getting me thinking, as always.

  • constance on March 12th 4:16 am

    loved this blog post.
    We don’t do Barbie, we had Get Real girls, tho my two older daughters did and are both feminists who don’t have body dysmorphia :)
    My youngest, aged 10, watched legally blonde and wanted to be a lawyer, now has spotted Abby in NCIS and is interested in being a scientist because she likes how cool Abby is. I would love to get her an Abby doll.

  • Rebecca Zook on March 12th 4:47 pm

    Sue, thanks for your thoughts as always! I’m glad that you have a workplace where you feel comfortable wearing what you want!

  • Rebecca Zook on March 12th 4:52 pm

    Constance, thanks for stopping by! I checked out your website and I really liked the featherhouse designs. Do you work with your daughters? I especially enjoyed Katy-Rose’s alphabet illustrations.

    It’s funny you mention legally blonde (coincidentally, I totally love that movie) — it seems like even movies (or dolls) we might think of as “silly” can still have a big, inspirational impact on little girls.

    Another blogger, Carol Dekkers, also mentioned the connection between Legally Blonde and Coder Barbie:. My favorite part of her post is, “Maybe we can even anticipate “Speaker of the House” Barbie, “Nobel Peace Prize” Barbie, “Research” Barbie, and “Major CEO” Barbie in the future…” :)

  • Luseea on March 17th 12:16 pm

    With great admiration towards you, Rebecca. I am so glad that you researched and wrote about this topic. I found the article through Mashable. Thanks again for the personal reply. I will repeat the link you gave for the Barbie here, in case somebody else is interested in pre orders (like you, I don’t work for Mattel either :*D ):
    Lucia
    http://shop.mattel.com/product/index.jsp?productId=4032107

  • Rebecca Zook on March 19th 6:22 pm

    You’re welcome! I’m so glad to hear your thoughts. thanks for stopping by!! :)

  • Andrew on April 3rd 1:18 am

    Of course, Countess Lovelace was in something of a unique position that enabled her to fully take advantage of the work that Babbage was doing. As we know, computer programming combines the worst aspects of both literature and mathematics, viz., you have to write a lot, and it all has be exactly correct. Lady Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron (yes, that Byron), and was aquainted with Charles Dickens (yes, that Dickens) as well as Charles Wheatstone and Michael Faraday (who developed the Wheatstone bridge and electricity, respectively). She was also tutored by Augustus De Morgan, who helped formalize logic and algebra (giving us De Morgan’s laws).

    Lady Lovelace was probably also assisted in her development of computer programming by being an extermely fashionable lady. Being the daughter of Lord Byron and Countess Lovelace, she was of course invited to all the finest parties, where she had to wear the finest outfits (such as shown above, with all sorts of lace and patterny bits). Well, the best fabrics, such as fine silks, were done on Jacquard looms. Now, to find out why a weaving machine developed by a debtor French patent clerk was vital to the development of computer programming, you should watch through all five parts of this “Connections” video over on YouTube:
    .

  • Andrew on April 3rd 1:19 am

    And of course it cuts the link off… Hrumph. As I said, you should watch through all five parts of this Connections video over on YouTube:

  • Andrew on April 3rd 1:24 am

    We apologise for the fault in the links. Those responsible have
    been sacked. Those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked have also been sacked. Go check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORY-mXXgJg4

  • Rebecca Zook on April 5th 7:27 pm

    Andrew, thanks for all your comments! I look forward to checking out those videos you mentioned.

    You’re right! Lovelace herself saw the comparison between her work as a programmer and the Jacquard looms.

    When she described the Analytical Engine in her “Notes,” Lovelace wrote, “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

    (Quote courtesy of http://plus.maths.org/issue34/features/ada/index.html)

  • Steve on May 11th 1:23 pm

    Rebecca, just wanted to point you to a frequently-overlooked role model:

    http://authors.library.caltech.edu/5456/1/hrst.mit.edu/hrs/apollo/public/people/mhamilton.htm

  • Rebecca Zook on May 12th 3:44 pm

    Steve, thanks for stopping by! I had never heard of Margaret Hamilton and I’m glad to learn about her! :)

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