In a kids’ book ironically titled “I Can Be a Computer Engineer,” young girls across America are invited into Barbie’s kitchen, where she sits at the breakfast table diligently working on a game she’s creating to teach kids how computers work.
Enter Barbie’s younger sister, Skipper. Impressed, she commends Barbie on a job well done, and asks if she can give the game a spin. “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”
And just like that, a generation of little girls are taught that they cannot, in fact, be computer engineers — not without help from boys, anyway. Come on, Barbie. Have you learned nothing since your 1992 “Math class is tough!” gaffe?
The reality is, Barbie’s latest blunder is nothing new, and not limited to Barbie. These are the exact cultural messages we’ve been sending girls about computer science — and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields in general — for decades. From the nerds of “Weird Science” to Silicon Valley’s brogrammers, our girls are constantly reminded: Computers are a boy thing.
Girls are taught that in tech, women are nowhere to be found, while boys are either antisocial hackers locked in a basement, or greedy, hoodie-wearing, Red Bull-chugging jerks.
By the time girls hit middle school and high school, they’ve internalized the myths. One 17-year-old Girls Who Code student, Riya, pointed out that while she had the confidence to deliver a speech to hundreds of people at her high school, the prospect of being the only girl in a computer science class terrified her. That’s why at Girls Who Code, our curriculum focuses as much on confidence-building and exposure to female role models as it does on mobile app development and algorithms.
As corporate America sits back and marvels at the fact that in the last 30 years the percentage of female computer science majors has plummeted from 37 percent to just 18 percent, we have to shine a brighter light on where the gender gap originates and, as both creators and consumers of content, demand better.
When not so abysmally tone deaf, brands can actually go a long way toward reversing negative stereotypes of women in STEM. Earlier this year, I recorded a voiceover for Verizon’s Inspire Her Mind campaign, which called attention to all the ways parents inadvertently discourage girls from building and creating. Just last week, Girls Who Code and CoverGirl launched a #GirlsCan video showcasing the brilliant, confident and, yes, fashionable teenage girls who have learned to code in our programs.
Last summer, I was a proud advocate of Entrepreneur Barbie, which I believed, despite the pink plastic accessories and humanly impossible physique, exposed girls to the world of tech in a positive way. “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” is something else entirely, and should be taken off the market.
With 1.4 million jobs being created in the computing fields by 2020, we have to move beyond the days of “Math class is tough!” The future of innovation depends on it.
Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. She is the author of “Women Who Don’t Wait in Line,” and is a former New York City Deputy Public Advocate. Reach her @reshmasaujani.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.