Barbie Got It Wrong, But One Career Path Isn’t Better Than Another

Kara Eschbach
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Art Credit: via Gigaom

You’ve probably heard of last week’s Barbie book scandal. If you haven’t, the hubbub was over a Barbie-branded book titled Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, and is a massive failure all the way through on that count. Basically Barbie breaks her sister’s computer, gets someone else to fix it, and then claims the title of computer engineer. It’s more like “how to be delusional and get people to give you credit for work you didn’t do.” The public backlash was so loud that the book, originally published in 2010, has been pulled from the Amazon catalog.

After reading the full story, I agree the book sends problematic messaging. But before I had a chance to read it in full, I had a slightly more reserved opinion. The portion of the book that I saw quoted, over and over again, in coverage of the story was simply the first couple of pages. In that part of the story, Barbie has an idea of a computer game, has sketched out the design part, and is now saying that she needs boys to do the coding for her.

I have to say, my first impression was “OK so Barbie is learning to delegate! What is that if not executive decision making?” Sadly, this wasn’t the case; the book isn’t titled “I can be a CEO” after all.

But the commentary I read often threw its ire at the idea of Barbie doing the design part but leaving boys to do the “real work” of coding. Which left a little nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I can’t quite shake: In our rush to encourage women in the highly-lauded STEM careers (i.e. those in science, technology, engineering, and math), are we wrongfully throwing other industries and career choices under the bus? Is this yet another example of saying that “whatever the boys are doing is better” and therefore what we should do?

As the editor of a women’s fashion and lifestyle publication, it might be easy to brush me off as someone in a typically girly enterprise, defending my career choice. That’s the reaction I often get upon meeting people. At least, before they realize that until three years ago I had spent nearly a decade studying and working in finance, and I now consider myself more of a business person and strategist than an editor (although I’m also an editor). Hardly traditional “women’s work.” And you know what might surprise you? For a long time I felt like I had copped out into an “easy” degree and career.

See, I grew up in a pretty gender-neutral household, at least when it came to academics. All my older siblings were engineers—including my sister, who went into chemical engineering, and then finance. Science and math were always encouraged as the subjects that “really matter.” This wasn’t presented as some way to stick it to the man, but just as a practical reality of 21st century industry that I would be joining upon graduation. So when I wanted to be an astronaut, or taught myself how to code websites from scratch, my parents were there cheering me along every step of the way.

But then in the middle of my junior year of high school, somewhere between chemistry and advanced bio I realized: I don’t actually like science. Sure, I did well enough that I got As, but that’s a lot different from enjoying a subject.

I eventually ended up interested in accounting, and later on in finance and investment banking. I don’t think many people would say that was necessarily an easier career choice, but I still felt like my choice was somehow less legit because it was not in a technical field. I had taught myself how to code when I was in middle school, and now I wasn’t pursuing it. Deep down I felt I had somehow failed my potential.

When it comes to the cultural push of women toward certain fields these days, there seem to be two main concerns: women being represented in industries of economic importance, and therefore those industries with the highest earning power (e.g. STEM) and women being represented in industries of power, which are also traditionally male-dominated (e.g. elected politics). So I can’t help but wonder: Are we concerned about these fields simply because we’re underrepresented? Or because, in some childish way, we want what the boys have?

Of course I think it’s important to advocate for women in those industries to be represented and encouraged to rise as high as they want to go. We should advocate change to whatever issues are inherent in the industries to remove artificial roadblocks due to sexism. And, yes, we should be wary of discouraging girls from these fields due to some stereotype that boys like science and math and girls don’t.

Frankly, I do think it’s important to have women in positions of power, both economically and politically, if we want to make sure that our concerns are going to be addressed in those places. But, at the same time, we can’t lose sight of the purpose behind that; it can’t be about making one profession or career path “better” than another.

I can attest to my cohort of women in their late 20s and early 30s often feeling like they were oversold on career. We grew up in the 90s era of Girl Power—we can do anything! But I also remember the the first time I legitimately entertained the idea that one day I might be a stay-at-home mom. I remember thinking, but wouldn’t that be a waste of my education and career accomplishments? The reaction gave me pause.

Personally, I’m interested in a different kind of girl power, one focused less myopically on balancing the ratios in male-heavy fields and more toward making sure we value whatever work that women do choose—whether it be a traditionally girly field, a traditionally manly field, or a stay-at-home-with-kids kind of field.

Because if we push one avenue over another as we tend to do, it often happens to be toward male-dominated fields, and that does a bigger disservice to girls today—sending the message that whatever fields men dominate are most valuable; that once again we should base our value primarily off what men choose.

So could I have been an engineer? Sure. But if I did, I’d probably be going through the motions of a career I didn’t want. And that, for me, is the real problem. Putting pressure on a woman to pursue certain fields over others ultimately risks limiting her from becoming the fully flourishing woman she was born to be. Learn science, study math, help girls see the wonder of the world for what it is. And if she thinks it’s cooler to be a pastry chef or graphic designer, the more power to her!

Because truly the greatest risk is holding women back from making a difference in the world where they have the greatest potential to do so—wherever that may be.