USC professors rally behind engineer Barbie

Never before has a group of engineers been so excited about a doll.

When Mattel Inc. announced they were giving the world the chance to vote for the next Barbie doll in the “I Can Be” series, female engineers at USC rallied together to support Computer Engineer Barbie, hoping to dispel the stereotype that engineers are usually men.

And though News Anchor Barbie won the vote of young girls, computer engineering Barbie ultimately won the popular vote, which many USC engineers say reflects the changing role of women in engineering at USC and in the professional world.

The presence of women in engineering schools and engineering professions has changed over the years; a field that was once dominated by men is now showing an increasingly large female presence.

“When I was a student in engineering, there were very few women in the program, and now there are a ton,” said Andrea Armani, an assistant professor of chemical engineering. “The overall environment has changed for me as a woman in engineering. It is much more nurturing now.”

Armani said she thinks women bring a unique viewpoint to the field of engineering, offering ways of approaching problems and viewing results that men might not have seen.

“How women and men approach research problems is very different, so it’s very important to have different opinions. They interact equally, but the guys tend to read books and plan out, whereas the girls tend to jump in and try things,” Armani said.

Still, the prevalence of men in the field has created a number of stereotypes surrounding women pursuing engineering. Though such stereotypes are well known by students at USC, most are not deterred by them and have instead chosen to fight the stereotypes.

“There is definitely a bias toward men in the engineering field,” said Kristen Hines, a sophomore majoring in industrial and systems engineering. “But that makes it more exciting to compete against the bias. Generally a stereotype of a woman engineer is that she is of Indian or Asian decent. Since almost all engineering companies are male dominated, often when women enter the work force they are looked down upon as not as intelligent. Getting respect is sometimes more challenging.”

There are many organizations on campus that serve to support women in the sciences and in engineering, such as Women In Science and Engineering and Female Undergraduates Educating and Leading in Science. These groups offer support and mentorship to their members, as well as a forum to discuss the challenges of being a woman in engineering.

Hines, who is a member of the Society of Women Engineers, said these groups help female engineers persist despite the stereotypes.

“They offer a lot of additional support and really help with alumnae relations and networking with major Fortune 500 companies,” Hines said. “I got my first internship this summer with Abbott as a manufacturing intern with SWE’s help and practice.”

With the new Computer Engineer Barbie now for sale, both professors and students are hopeful that she will have a positive influence on young girls by introducing them to the option of engineering as a career.

“Having a Barbie character will put into the minds of girls that engineers can be females,” said Burcin Becerik, an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering. “If kids grow up knowing there’s an engineering Barbie, they will be probably more influenced to look into the field.”

Becerik said she is pleased with the way Computer Engineer Barbie turned out.

“I like the fact that the Barbie has a really beautiful figure — everything is perfect. It represents a beautiful imaged women and now there will be a beautiful engineer,” she said.