Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dress Up, Tea Parties and Semiconductor Device Fabrication

It's feels like just yesterday our little Teen-Talk Barbie was lamenting "Math class is tough."

But now she's found a job as a Computer Engineer! Good for you, Barbara Millicent Roberts. with a median salary around 100k, the serial job switcher should have plenty of pocket change for trendy new outfits, and whatever surgery gives her her inhuman body proportions. As a computer engineer she'll be working in the boundary between hardware and software, designing computer chips and integrating them with cell phones, industrial machinery, airplanes...really, space is the limit. Some day you may find yourself huddled in your basement, cursing Barbie not for the deleterious affect she had on generations of impressionable young girls but for releasing the Robot Apocalypse on us all. Also announced was News Anchor Barbie, who'll keep you updated on the devastation those cuddly pink robots are loosing on our toppled civilization.

Assuming she focuses on hardware, Barbie will be part of just 11% of females in her field. On the software side, she'd be only slightly better represented, in the 25-30% range. Will she be a role model, stemming the continual decline of those numbers? Or will she get bored, flitting between jobs at an ever increasing rate? She's been a business executive 4 times since the 60's, and women still make up just 15% of Fortune 500 Board Members.

I can believe the big business boardroom is a remaining bastion of sexism, but why the lack of female scientists? Could advanced mathematical thinking really be one of the ways our brains differ? Does society socialize children into adult roles more than we're willing to believe?

I read about a study recently that found elementary school teachers can pass math anxiety on to students of their gender. In an interesting twist, that would suggest that promoting Math and Sciences could actually exacerbate the problem: those with mathematical aptitude would be pushed towards science (more jobs, better pay, social rewards for holding the 'right' job), while people with math anxiety would be more likely to end up as teachers, and pass those fears on to a new generation. It's tough to comment briefly on sociological issues like this, because it's a complex interplay of so many factors that focusing on any small subset is likely to miss the big picture (thanks a lot chaos theory!), but I can believe that promoting teaching and learning as high value pursuits would do more good then promoting science explicitly.

Anyways, congrats to Barbie. If you've ever got any programming questions, feel free to send me an email. And remember: any self-replicating machinery absolutely needs a resilient kill switch.

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