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Computer Engineer Barbie Needs Help from Boys with Coding: Sexist Mattel Book Gets Slammed

Clearly, Mattel did not learn a thing or two from its "math class is tough" faux pas in 1992.

Twelve years ago, the maker of the world's most popular doll apologized for Teen Talk Barbie, a doll that could speak 270 programmed phrases. After a women's group slammed the toy maker for implying that math was something girls were naturally bad in, Mattel said it was sorry because it did not fully consider the negative implications of including the phrase. Now, history repeats itself as Mattel yet again apologizes for a book that clearly hints at the wrong assumption that girls can't work with computers.

"The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn't reflect the brand's vision for what Barbie stands for," Mattel says. "We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn't reflect that belief."

Mattel also promises that all Barbie books from now on will "inspire girls' imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character."

The book is a two-part series that shows Barbie being successful in her chosen career. The first part, titled "I Can Be an Actress," isn't so bad. It's the second part, called "I Can Be a Computer Engineer," that has racked up so many one-star reviews on Amazon and has even caused the book to be pulled out from the online store.

"I Can Be a Computer Engineer" is a picture book aimed at girls aged three to seven, or toddler and pre-school aged girls. The book starts off pretty cool, with Barbie having breakfast in her pink and purple kitchen working on a computer game that uses cute puppies to teach basic programming for girls. It turns out; however, Barbie can't really do the programming. She tells her sister, Skipper, that she is going to need Steven and Brian's help for that. All right, that's fine. We'll just assume Mattel was simply emphasizing the importance of teamwork in this part of the book.

Moving on, we find out that Barbie isn't actually good with computers after all. Her laptop, which of course is as hot as pink as possible, starts blinking, and her sister points out that it's been infected with a virus. She then uses Skipper's laptop to email her designs to Steven and Brian but infects the second laptop as well through the heart-shaped USB flash drive which she uses as a necklace and contains her designs. At least Barbie knows how to do backups. But what computer engineer doesn't know how to install security measures against things as obvious as a virus on a flash drive?

Barbie loses the homework Skipper has been working on and all of her sister's files. But the impact of this doesn't seem to register on both of them. Barbie skips off to school, promising to fix her sister's laptop, and Skipper playfully throws a pillow. At school, she asks her female computer class teacher what to do with viruses and the teacher responds with what some programmer reviewers call technically bad advice. Barbie then heads off to the library to have Steven and Brian fix the infected laptops and create the code for her game. The guys are able to retrieve Skipper's files and build her game, and Barbie takes all the credit for it.

"Barbie's terrific computer skills have saved the day for both sisters!" writes author Susan Marenco in the book's closing lines.

"'I guess I can be a computer engineer!" says Barbie happily.

In usual Internet fashion, hordes of angry parents and programmers have taken to Amazon to post scathing reviews of the book, giving it an average of just 1.5 stars. One reviewer, who was kind enough to give the book a neutral three stars, says it should have been titled "I Can Manipulate Boys Into Programming While I Sit Back and Take Credit."

One reviewer, nicknamed only T, calls it "possibly the most irresponsible children's book ever published," pointing out that generations of women have successfully hurdled computer science programs at university and went on to contribute their accomplishments to the technology industry.

"The title should really be a question: 'Can I Be a Computer Engineer?' and the answer, according to this book, is no! Silly Barbie, take all that hard programming stuff to the boys! It will be faster if they just do it for you," T writes. "Once again, women programmers are shafted by the toy industry who insists computers are toys for boys."

Another reviewer, software engineer Rachel Appel, laments Barbie's Disney princess-like attitude, which sends the message to young children that she cannot do computer engineering and need a white knight to do it for her.

"I work as a software engineer, which is a male-dominated field," Appel writes. "It is exactly these stereotypes and portrayals of girls like the one in this book that are the driving force behind the lack of girls wanting to enter these lucrative technology fields. This book is part of the problem."

Marenco, who has since been afraid to open her email for fear of the deluge of angry emails from pissed off parents, admits that she may have allowed stereotypes to slip into the book. The San Francisco-based author, who previously worked at Microsoft Development Center Copenhagen for 10 years as an editor and usability designer specializing in linguistic usability, considers herself a feminist and regrets that she might have "quietly abided by Mattel without questioning it."

"Maybe I should have pushed back, and I usually do, but I didn't this time," she tells ABC News. "Maybe I should have made one of those programmers a female. I wish I did."

The book, which was published by Random House in 2013 as an accompaniment to an I Can Be a Computer Engineer doll donning pink glasses and carrying a pink laptop, received wider exposure when author and screenwriter Pamela Ribbon found it sitting on one of the shelves in her friend's home.

"We knew we had to share this with you because if we didn't, we'd be saying it was okay," Ribbon says. "We couldn't just roll our eyes at how insulting this book is, how dangerous it is for young minds, how it's a perfect example of the way women and girls are perceived to 'understand' the tech world, and how frustrating it can be when nobody believes this is how we're treated."

The backlash comes amidst issues of negative female stereotypes perpetuated by cultural messages, such as this book created by Mattel, and propagated in the computer industry and the broader Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Diversity reports released by major technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple demonstrate the prevalence of these stereotypes, with 80 to 85 percent of tech jobs at all three companies dominated by males. But the disparity isn't seen only in the workforce; it's present in the classroom too. The percentage of female students taking up computer science programs has dropped to 18 percent from its peak of 37 percent in the 1980s.

Silicon Valley, however, is working to narrow the gap in the difference between male and female programmer numbers. Google for instance, is investing millions of dollars in Girls Who Code, a program that aims to encourage young girls to take up computer science and related fields of study in college.

Still, the world is a long way off from promoting gender equality in technology and letting young girls explore any field they are interested in without being exposed to negative messages that they cannot be successful in technical endeavors for the simple reason that they are girls. As one 17-year-old Girls Who Code student named Riya says, she is still terrified by the prospect of being the only girl in her all-boy computer science class. Perhaps next time, Mattel can do well not to help induce these unfounded fears by publishing ridiculous books such as "I Can Be a Computer Engineer."

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