(Photo by: Justin Prather | The Daily Utah Chronicle).

 

“And why should we believe Engineering Barbie?” He spit the words across the table as I concluded my presentation, recommending to me the use of a more expensive metal to manufacture a critical component in my product design. His remark solicited snickers from the room. Members of my team and individuals I did not know laughed at my appearance. Perhaps with my light pink shirt, nude high heels and fuchsia calculator, I resembled the iconic plastic doll, a toy that I grew up playing with and loving. I smiled. To me, Barbie is a doctor and a dancer, a princess and a president, an astronaut and an athlete, not an insult.

Earlier this month, Mattel announced a new line of “science, exploration and research” Barbies in partnership with National Geographic. For the first time since her debut almost 60 years ago, Barbie will be exploring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields such as astrophysics and marine biology. Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager of the Barbie brand, promoted the partnership and said, “Barbie allows girls to try on new roles through storytelling by showing them they can be anything.”

Sadly, this announcement was met with criticism. Sensationalized research has claimed that Barbie negatively impacts young girls’ career aspirations, while anecdotes held the doll responsible for body dysmorphia in young women. However, such so-called research does not hold up under scientific scrutiny, as both studies relied heavily on small and unrepresentative sample sizes. Instead, these “it feels right, so it must be right” studies highlight a pervasive and often unconscious bias in our society. Barbie is not being taken seriously because of her appearance, an experience which many female engineers like myself are sadly too familiar with.

Dr. Stephanie Johnson, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and an expert in the “beauty is beastly” effect, explained why women struggle to find gainful employment in a traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering. “An attractive woman interviewing for a masculine job will have some very strong inferences like, perhaps, she is too feminine to do the job,” said Johnson. “These thoughts are so strong, in fact, that we found the interviewer often cannot even pay attention to what she [the candidate] is saying.”

This bias is not isolated to potential employers, as full-stack engineer Isis Wenger discovered when the internet took issue with her image being used to recruit software engineers as she did not “look like an actual engineer.” Commenters who wrote what they seemed to think were clever eviscerations of Wenger and her employer were met by hundreds of female engineers who responded to this sexism with the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer. In a society where female engineers are judged on their looks instead of what they have achieved, Barbie may be the best toy to prepare young girls to be engineers.

It’s a cliché in engineering to write in a college admissions essay about growing up and playing with Legos. However, as I stood in front of my colleagues snickering at the moniker “Engineering Barbie,” I realized that I had never told anyone in my field about my adventures with Barbie. It is not because my playtime with Barbie is less relevant to who I am as an engineer than the time I spent constructing with Legos, but because I knew it would likely be considered irrelevant by many of my peers. Moments later, another realization hit me — I should not have to curate my appearance, my hobbies or my childhood interests to “look like an engineer” to my peers, because I am an engineer.

“I love Barbie,” I said in reply to the comment. The room fell silent. “I used to make her different parachutes and launch her off the back of my friend’s couch to test which one worked the best.” I paused, reaching down for my maroon dry erase marker, “If you all are unsure about my conclusion, let’s walk through my calculations more explicitly.”

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

@TheChrony

Morgan told her parents as a child that she would never become an engineer, so naturally, she is studying mechanical engineering here at the U. After a year of writing Orrin Hatch's Congressional Office daily with little response, she decided her time would be better spent writing for the Daily Utah Chronicle's Opinion Desk. Morgan focuses her writing on politics and science, two of her favorite things.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Morgan, while I am saddened by the responses of many of your colleagues and peers, I am inspired by your response. Your elegance and grace in facing this type of adversity is admirable. As a female medical student, I often face similar criticisms from those around me and, interestingly enough, also found inspiration in Barbie (although it was veterinary Barbie). Embracing our unique perspectives as females in these demanding roles will be essential to solving many of the global problems with which our respective professions have been tasked in the years to come. I applaud your wholehearted and unabashed embracement of who you are and what you can do. At the risk of sounding cliche, you go girl!

  2. Oh good, another article about how women are the victims of the world. Stop acting like a victim when you are not one. Silly article that forgot to use facts or documentation to back up claims. Must have been written by an engineer!

  3. As a faculty member in architecture, Barbie was critical to me as an adolescent. I spent many happy hours building a (well proportioned!!) house for Barbie out of cardboard and other recycled trash (milk cartons, e.g.). The house eventually took over my entire bedroom. Barbie was my first client and she was very demanding as well as stylish. Legos were fun, too, but Barbie taught me the human angle.

  4. This story sounded made up. I’ve been working as a mechanical engineer for over 13 years now, and never had I ever seen anyone treated like that. Never. Not even once.

    And no Morgan, you don’t look anything at all like “Barbie”.

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