Preparing Barbie for a High-Tech Career

Member helps give iconic doll a makeover

4 February 2011

Mattel’s iconic Barbie doll has held an array of jobs over the years, including veterinarian, pizza chef, and movie star. Now, with the help of IEEE Member Erin Fitzgerald, Mattel has added the title of computer engineer to Barbie’s résumé.

The toy company let the public vote online in January 2009 on Barbie’s next career in its “I Can Be…” series, which aims to acquaint children with a variety of professions. As more than 600 000 votes poured in, Computer Engineer Barbie took a commanding lead over the other choices, which included environmentalist, architect, and surgeon. The results were announced on 12 February 2010 at the New York Toy Fair, in New York City: News Anchor Barbie and Computer Engineer Barbie would become the doll’s 125th and 126th careers, respectively. Computer Engineer Barbie reached store shelves in December.

To help make the doll true to life, Mattel contacted the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the Society of Women Engineers for ideas on how to dress and accessorize Barbie for her new role.

Fitzgerald got involved in January 2009, shortly after the votes had been counted. She was an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow at the U.S. Department of Defense, and had completed a three-month science and technology policy fellowship with the NAE and its defense intelligence board. NAE colleagues recommended Fitzgerald to Randy Atkins, the academy’s senior media relations officer, as someone who could give useful input for designing a doll that would appeal to girls.

Atkins e-mailed her with a tight deadline of 9 the following morning. Fitzgerald decided to brainstorm with her colleagues and sent them an e-mail blast asking for feedback.

“Some of our ideas that made it into the final design included giving Barbie a laptop, a smartphone, trendy glasses, and a watch, and not outfitting her with a white lab coat, which Mattel originally suggested to make her look more ‘science-y,’” Fitzgerald says.

To Fitzgerald’s relief, instead of a lab coat, Computer Engineer Barbie was outfitted in a form-fitting blazer and a cotton undershirt decorated with binary code, over sparkly black leggings. She wears bright pink cat-eye glasses and carries a matching pink laptop and phone. The doll comes with a code that gives children access to online engineering-themed content, logic games, and puzzles.

Growing up, Fitzgerald’s vision of an engineer was nowhere near as clear as her vision for the Barbie she helped design. “As a child, I never knew what an engineer really was,” she says. Although her father worked as a mechanical and industrial engineer, “visiting him at his office when I was young never seemed very interesting, nor did it give me a good picture of what he did for a living.”

During the summers in her middle and high school years, she attended three-week-long talent-identification programs at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., where she took classes in mathematical problem solving and an introduction to engineering. She applied concepts in physics and other disciplines to build devices to meet certain constraints.

“It wasn’t until then that I began to realize that engineering really involved math and science applied to solving problems,” she says, “and that sounded fantastic!”

She went on to pursue bachelor’s degrees in engineering and music (playing the clarinet was one of her passions) at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. Along the way, she met a professor who introduced her to speech-recognition research. Intrigued, she took internships working on the technology for Intel and Microsoft. She earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in 2002, with a minor in music performance. Fitzgerald went on to receive a master’s degree in the same subject in 2004 and a Ph.D. in 2009 in electrical and computer engineering with a concentration in speech and language processing, both from Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

“I was excited about the new range of possibilities that the combination of electrical and computer science and linguistics offered,” she says.

The idea of working in the public sector also appealed to her at the time, she says. She served as student body president at CMU, and in 2005 she helped to found Women of Whiting, an organization for female graduate students attending Whiting Engineering School at Johns Hopkins. The group meets several times each semester to address topics such as the challenges of breaking into male-dominated fields, planning for a career and family, and the opportunities that science and engineering provide for women.

“I had an interest in staying closely involved with science and technology but from a broadened perspective beyond the speech and language processing area in which I had specialized in graduate school,” Fitzgerald says.

She now works as a policy fellow with the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Department of Defense, where she has been instrumental in revamping department policies on export control and restrictive clauses on fundamental university research. She is also working to establish a standing external advisory committee for defense basic research to better connect policy makers to the country's top scientists.

Fitzgerald says that although she faced the same basic challenges as her male peers did during engineering school, there is still “certainly a gender imbalance in the field.” She graduated from CMU as one of 18 women in an electrical and computer engineering class of 150, and “Johns Hopkins’ numbers weren’t very different,” she says.

Although a new doll role model will not by itself reverse the engineering gender gap, Fitzgerald says she hopes the toy will spark an important dialogue among girls and their teachers and parents.

“To me, Computer Engineer Barbie not only exposes girls to the idea that a technical career is accessible to them, but it also provides a catalyst for the girls to ask parents and teachers more questions about what it means to be a scientist or engineer,” she says.

“When a girl decides not to sign up for an advanced math or science class, I’d like to make sure it’s an informed decision—that she has the confidence to know what she is capable of, and that she understands engineering is not just for socially awkward nerds,” Fitzgerald continues. “I want her to know that as an engineer she can be creative and interactive and pursue a variety of careers in which she can really affect society and humanity.”

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