University of Sheffield engineer Rachel Elder on Engineering Barbie

 

I’m a Barbie Girl in an Engineering World

When Dr. Rachel Elder first heard there was going to be a new Engineering Barbie she was excited. 

"I am a Chemical Engineer. Tick. I like to wear nice dresses and sparkly heels. I have blond hair. I like to meet up with my friends and gossip. Tick, tick, tick. Does that make me an Engineering Barbie?

Stereotyping is unhelpful

For so long we have been trying to open up and promote engineering and science as a fascinating and inspiring career for girls. Too many toys put young girls in a stereotypical “pink box” which they never climb out of. The young girls I know like all colours of the rainbow. They are curious. They like creating things, investigating things and designing things. So why are so many toys gendered? Why are we forcing so many talented young children down a particular path at an early age without empowering them with free choice?

Engineering is about finding solutions

Thames and Kosmos’ Engineering Barbie gets to build household appliances, including a moving clothes rail and a washing machine (both pink of course). Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that Barbie sees a problem and finds a solution - that is after all what engineering is about - and it’s great that she uses ‘real’ equipment - gears, axles etc - but why did she have to build household appliances? Do you really want to send a message that says it’s the women that do household chores? It’s a damaging and contradictory message. The target age is 4 - 8 years, exactly the age when children are most influential and when preconceptions form. Not only does this Engineering Barbie send a message to girls that they should be concentrating on the household, but it sends a message to boys that says the household is a girls place. Some critics are complaining that Engineering Barbie is pinkifying science. Well, what’s wrong with that? There is nothing wrong with pink. But why couldn’t engineering Barbie have built a pink racing car? Or a pink bridge? Or a pink wind turbine? I’m sorry Thames and Kosmos, I don’t want to be your kind of Engineering Barbie. I became an engineer because I love finding solutions to complex problems and I want to make a difference in the world. That doesn’t stop me wearing sparkly heels if I want to.

Barbie the engineer

It’s certainly not the first time Barbie have played to stereotypes in a damaging way. Seven years ago ‘Barbie: I can be a Computer Engineer’ was published, before being discontinued after receiving strong criticism. It’s another example of a well-meaning idea; Barbie is designing a computer game but it turns out she’s only creating the design ideas and will need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game i.e. she needs a man to do the engineering for her. If only she could have done the engineering herself.

Making a difference in the world

Do the designers at Thames and Kosmos really not know what engineering is? Or have they just fallen into the same stereotyping trap we’ve been stuck in for years? Or are they just misguided enough to think that girls are so narrow minded they couldn’t possibly be interested in real engineering? Engineering is about finding creative solutions that can really make a difference in the world. Engineering is developing new technologies that help combat climate change. Engineering is developing artificial body parts that give people a freedom they would not otherwise have. Engineering is designing and constructing new buildings of imaginative designs. Engineering is finding agricultural solutions that help feed the starving populations of the world. Engineering is applying your imagination to find a creative solution. What girl wouldn’t find that cool? Barbie, you have a chance to inspire young girls and help create the engineers of the future. Please take it!

Less than 10% female UK Engineering workforce

Rachael Rothman is Faculty Director for Women in Engineering at The University of Sheffield and holds some salient views about gender and engineering.

Less that 10% of the UK Engineering workforces is female; this is the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe. There is a current annual shortfall of 55,000 skilled engineers in the UK. Filling the demand for new engineering jobs will generate an additional £27 billion per year for the UK economy from 2022, according to the 2015 Engineering UK report ‘The State of Engineering’.15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are female, with the University of Sheffield being above the national average at 19%. The highest percentage of female engineers at the University of Sheffield is in Chemical Engineering, where 33% of undergraduates are female (7% above the national average for Chemical Engineering).

At Sheffield, they're striving to get engineering education on the school curriculum to reach tomorrow’s engineers when they are young. They want to educate people about engineering to address the desperate shortage of engineers in this country. They want to build on the innate curiosity of children to create and invent, to encourage them to use natural abilities in maths and apply it to make a real difference in the world.

For more information about what Engineering Is, see www.engineeringis.co.uk

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