Proving 'Talking Barbie' wrong

March 28, 1995

Barbie had it all wrong.

Several years ago, when a talking version of the legendary doll hit the market, it was roundly criticized for having within its "memory" a phrase about disliking math. Women's groups were outraged the popular toy would reinforce an already too-prevalent attitude: That girls were ill-suited or little inclined to pursue such technical fields of study.

Research has shown that in their early schooling, girls score as well or better than boys on math exams. But by middle school, girls begin to slip as they become more self-conscious about gender roles. Some experts believe the subtle messages sent to girls are at the root of the trend; recent research also points to the possibility that biology is a factor.

At any rate, it does not help that in the explosion of technology involving computers, the number of programs aimed at boys far exceeds the software for girls. All of this has run counter to efforts over the past generation to encourage young women to pursue non-traditional careers.

In this context, an event planned Saturday at Howard County's Wilde Lake High School at River Hill is an effort designed to help shatter those stereotypes.

"Computermania '95," sponsored by the Howard County Public Schools and Paragon Computer Services Inc. of Ellicott City, has already enjoyed such a huge response that organizers have begun planning for next year's show. Two hundred people -- the maximum for one session -- have signed up for the half-day event, which will focus on careers in aerospace engineering and medicine as well as journalism, interior design and commercial art.

This level of interest may not surprise many people in Howard County, with its concentration of professional women. In Columbia alone, 76 percent of women age 16 and older work outside the home, with more than half of men and women in professional fields.

Still, young people can be overwhelmed by mass media images that undercut the reality around them. Reinforcing the notion that girls can pursue math and science fields is a productive goal.

Appropriately enough, the event at Wilde Lake is targeted at fourth- , fifth- and sixth-graders, before the typecasting has solidified. If it even sparks interest for a fraction of the attendants, the program will be well worth the effort.

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