In 1992, Mattel made a big mistake with one of its flagship products. Teen Talk Barbie featured a computer chip, with each doll programmed to say four of 270 phrases. One of the phrases was the ill-conceived “Math class is tough!”
That didn’t sit well with female professionals, including the members of Systers, a pioneering listserv founded by computer scientist Anita Borg in 1987 to connect women in computers. The tightly moderated listserv focused exclusively on technical issues, but in the case of Teen Talk Barbie, Borg loosened the rules. The Systers took their objections public and added their voices to the chorus of protestors, persuading Mattel to discontinue dolls that said the phrase.
The Systers listserv was only the beginning of Borg’s contributions to increase women’s presence in STEM. In 1994, she co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, named for the “mother of computing.” In 1997, Borg joined the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where she founded the Institute for Women in Technology. Today, that organization is known as AnitaB.org in honor of its founder, who passed away in 2003 after a battle with brain cancer.
Barbie’s run-ins with women in STEM continued. In 2014, the Barbie tome “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” made headlines after it was discovered that in the book Barbie says she is only “creating design ideas” and that she needs the help of a “Steven and Brian” to turn her ideas into a “real game.” The public outcry resulted in the book’s being pulled from shelves—and the hilarious “Feminist Hacker Barbie” website, where women in STEM were able to rewrite Barbie’s story. Borg would have surely enjoyed that.
Photo: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock
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