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What do Ada Lovelace, Barbie and I all have in common?

February 18, 2010 | Posted by Microsoft Research Blog

This post originally appeared on The Official Microsoft Blog.


The National Science Foundation reports that women currently make up only 19.5 percent of engineering bachelor degree recipients and 11 percent of professional engineering positions in the United States.  Those are unfortunate numbers. Not only do more and more of the world’s top jobs require science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) expertise, but few women enter engineering, causing a serious loss of a tremendous talent pool. We need to create more competent women engineers.


Today is one step on that path. It’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day—a special shout-out to young women during National Engineers Week.  As a female computing professional, I thought it would be helpful to focus on several “girl” engineers (real or plastic) who have made a tremendous impact in our lives.  Maybe a look at them can show us how to close the gap between the world’s engineering needs and the women looking for great opportunities.


Take Barbie. Back in 1992, when I was a computer science professor at the University of Virginia and the mother of two young girls, I learned that Mattel had created a Barbie that said, “math class is tough.”  I thought, “it’s only tough if the girls are led to believe that it’s tough.”  It’s the incorrect stereotypes themselves that make math hard!


Nearly 20 years later, Mattel may help turn that stereotype around with the release of Computer Engineer Barbie—complete with a fashionable binary code shirt, pink glasses, and a pink laptop. (For all you Barbie experts out there: Don’t worry—her feet are still designed to fit into her signature high heels!)


Barbie the computer engineer follows in some pretty big shoes. Those belong to Ada Lovelace. Never heard of her?


The daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, Lovelace is often credited with writing the first computer program in the world—in 1842-43!  Essentially, she worked with Charles Babbage and, while translating and keeping notes about Babbage’s Analytical engine (the early model for a computer), she added comments that have been widely recognized as the first software.  As such, she is frequently seen as the founder of scientific computing.


Between Lovelace and Barbie, there are plenty of other amazing women computer engineers—some famous, such as Grace Hopper, some not.  They serve as my inspirations as I work on projects such as the Tablet PC and other classroom technologies, or with teams of students around the world for the Multitouch and Tablet Accessibility Award at the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition.


Providing role models is an important piece. But hands-on experience is equally important. Take Microsoft’s DigiGirlz program. It’s specifically designed to give high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops. You get to actually see how technology can be used in a variety of areas, from healthcare to the environment to business.



Whether or not you have the time today to introduce a girl to engineering, I want to leave you with this thought—and action item.  Think about an engineer or engineering solution you believe has had a tremendous impact on the world. Then share that information here and with a young woman you love. It’s never too early to start thinking about her future and ours!


Jane Prey, PhD, is a senior research program manager with Microsoft Research External Research. She is also an active member of IEEE, with which Microsoft is collaborating to empower students to achieve their professional aspirations.