From Discouraged Math Student to Computer Engineer: One Doll’s Story

Today marks the the 55th anniversary of Barbie’s debut. Like many icons, she may have stirred up some controversy at times, but she has influenced generations, and today we follow her journey “From Discouraged Math Student to Computer Engineer.” This entry from  was cross-posted with permission from AAUW and originally ran on their blog on December 11, 2013.

“Math class is tough,” proclaimed the first talking Barbie in 1992.

As leaders in the area of girls’ education, AAUW members were alarmed at Barbie’s attitude. Then-president Sharon Schuster put it best in her demand for a recall: “We are pleased that Barbie has finally been given a voice. But it is a shame that Mattel didn’t give her a more confident one.”

AAUW’s demand, along with our 1992 report on how schools were shortchanging girls, pushed Mattel to remove the phrase from Barbie’s repertoire.

Since then, it seems that Mattel has come a long way in how it portrays women’s ability in science and math. In 2010, the company announced that Barbie’s 126th career would be in computer engineering. Her transformation into a leader in the still heavily male-dominated fields of computer science and engineering earned her a spot on our 2013 holiday gift guide for girls. (We published the guide, in part, because of evidence that shows how toys can affect children’s career choices.)

Barbie’s new career choice could not have been easy. To become a computer engineer, she had to fight an uphill battle, combating stereotypes about women in math and technology. Researchers have long known about stereotype threat, the fear of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or of doing something that would confirm that stereotype. This is a very real experience for girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and the effects are well documented. When a girl is exposed to a negative stereotype about girls’ general ability in math right before she takes a math test, her performance worsens.

Engineer Barbie

So how did Barbie overcome the stereotype that girls can’t excel in mathematics? Perhaps with a little help from family and mentors: Researchers have found that parents and teachers can shape math attitudes among children. Presumably, Barbie’s mother and women teachers fully conquered their own math anxieties and helped improve Barbie’s confidence.

Or maybe Barbie embraced a growth mindset and believed that her intellectual ability, regardless of any negative stereotypes, could expand with learning. Armed with an appreciation of the plasticity (pun intended!) of the brain, she could move past stereotypes about girls and math.

Barbie may have pursued a STEM career because both engineering and computer science offer relatively high wages, even for those who don’t have graduate training. The mortgage on the dream house alone means that Barbie needs a well-paying career, even if Ken helps out.

Or perhaps Barbie simply enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the field or felt strongly about being able to contribute to society, as so many computer engineers do. Whatever her motives, we are glad to see Barbie join the field of computer engineering.

No Barbie story with a gender lens would be complete without acknowledging that, despite her new tech career, Barbie is far from a perfect model for girls, particularly in terms of body image. Still, we’re glad to see her realize that math’s not so hard after all. We hope more girls follow suit.


Women’s History Month Q&A – March 7, 2014

Q: This singer, songwriter and musician was named the most successful female songwriter of 1955-99.  At the age of 18, she co-wrote what would become the first song by a girl group to hit No. 1 on the American charts, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”

A: Carole King. She has written or co-written 118 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.

Celebrating International Women’s Day With Our Sister Fund Nirnaya

international-womens-day In the spring of 1998, two women’s funds were launched 8,000 miles apart. In Washington, DC, a group of women established Washington Area Women’s Foundation, while in Andhra Pradesh, India, three women founded Nirnaya. Both organizations were started completely independent of one another, but we are deeply connected by our beliefs in the incredible potential of women and girls, our missions to invest in the economic security of women who live in poverty, and our shared emphasis on engaging donors who understand the importance and impact of investing in women and girls.

In observance of International Women’s Day, which is on March 8, we’re sharing a story written by Dr. Supriya Rao that ran in a recent issue of Nirnaya’s newsletter. The names and locations in the story may be unfamiliar, but you will likely recognize many of the themes and emotions. They are universal, and a reminder that everyone has the capacity to be a catalyst for great change.

The Tale of a Tribute
It is uncommon to find an individual that radiates beauty, intelligence, compassion and with a quick sense of humour at the seasoned age of 83. Pramila Nanda is one such person. The eldest of five siblings, Pramila took on the role of looking after her brothers and sisters very early in age. She graduated from the University of Delhi with a degree in Physics, married Mohan Nanda, an officer in the Indian Air Force and spent a few years as a homemaker. In 1958, after the passing of her husband, Pramila decided to begin a career in writing.

Pramila was among the earliest women writers to comment about life and events in the city of Hyderabad. She wrote about the lives of prominent women in the city and her articles featured regularly in magazines like Eve’s weekly and Femina. After working 30 years [in writing, public relations and advertising], Pramila finally retired in 1988, soon after which she lost her parents and more unexpectedly, her younger sister Shyamala.

Pramila Nanda_fr NirnayaEighteen years younger than Pramila, Shyamala was more like a daughter to Pramila and Mohan Nanda. Her sudden illness and death were extremely difficult to deal with for Pramila. But she continued to persevere and look for more positive ways in which she could still experience the strong bond of love she shared with her sister. She stayed in touch with Shyamala’s friend, Indira Jena, founder trustee of Nirnaya. She grew inspired by Nirnaya’s work and was especially touched by Vikasini [School], the free girl child education programme for girl children of Addagutta slum in Secunderabad.

In 2004, Pramila asked if she could start a scholarship scheme for the students of Vikasini School in the memory of her sister. She donated a sum of two lakhs [about $4,500], which along with [other donations was invested in bonds], the interest of which goes to support the scholarship awardee, after she has completed [5th grade] at Vikasini, to study in a well reputed private school…. Currently the Shyamala Pai Memorial Scholarship supports the high school education of Swapna from the Addagutta slum in Secunderabad. Swapna’s dream from age nine was to become a “Collector” and ensure the improvement of slum areas, similar to the one she lives in. Having battled tuberculosis during the past three years and yet performing extremely well in the [10th grade] examinations… she is now in [grade] 11.

[T]he Shyamala Pai Memorial Scholarship is not just a tribute fund; it is the miraculous interspersing of three women’s lives; across class, across three generations and even across the seeming barrier of death. Each of these women has inspired and enhanced the lives of the others, either purposefully or inadvertently. The love, friendship, generosity, courage and determination of these women have culminated in a wonderful philanthropic initiative, indeed a delightful tribute to all of them!

Women’s History Month Q&A – March 6, 2014

Q: Who was the first female Supreme Court Justice?

A: Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1981, making her the first female Supreme Court Justice.

In response to an editorial in The New York Times which mentioned the “nine old men” of the Court,Sandra Day O’Connor, the self-styled FWOTSC (First Woman On The Supreme Court), sent a letter to the editor stating:

“Is no Washington name exempt from shorthand? One, maybe. The Chief Magistrate responsible for executing the laws is sometimes called the POTUS [President of the United States].

The nine men who interpret them are often the SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States].
The people who enact them are still, for better or worse, Congress.

According to the information available to me, and which I had assumed was generally available, for over two years now SCOTUS has not consisted of nine men. If you have any contradictory information, I would be grateful if you would forward it as I am sure the POTUS, the SCOTUS and the undersigned (the FWOTSC) would be most interested in seeing it.”

Women’s History Month Q&A – March 5, 2014

Q: Who was the first woman nominated for president by a major political party?

A: Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman nominated for president by a major party. At the Republican Convention, she placed fifth and lost the nomination to Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Margaret Chase Smith entered politics when she succeeded her late husband in the House of Representatives in 1940. After four terms in the House, she won election to the United States Senate in 1948. In so doing, she became the first woman elected to both houses of Congress.

In 1964, Senator Smith ran in several Republican presidential primaries. She took her candidacy all the way to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, where she became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by either of the two major parties. In the final balloting, Smith refused to withdraw and so wound up coming in second to the Republican nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater.

During her career, Senator Smith served four terms in the Senate and thirty-two years in Congress.

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda-Ngozi-AdichieAre you a feminist? Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says that everyone should be an unapologetic feminist and work together to make gender inequity a thing of the past. In recognition of International Women’s Day and the worldwide efforts to improve access to resources and opportunities for women, we’re sharing Adichie’s popular Tedx Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.” Take a look (or read the transcript) and then let us know in the comments: are you a feminist?

Women’s History Month Q&A – March 3, 2014

Q: Who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic?

A: Amelia Earhart. She made her solo trip across the Atlantic in 1932.

Before becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart made history as the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic, joined by pilot Wilmer “Bill” Stultz and co-pilot/mechanic Louis E. “Slim” Gordon in 1928. The trip was all the more historic as three women had died within the year trying to be that first woman.  Read more about the remarkable Amelia Earhart on the family of Emelia Earhart’s official website.

When Data Tells a Local Woman’s Story

CFED asset scorecard coverWorking in the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, it helps to be a bit of a data nerd.  Increasingly, tracking, crunching, and assessing data is not just a “nice to do” but a “must do.”  At The Women’s Foundation, we work hard to make sure we’re investing in strategies that are data-driven and evidence-based.

For those who are not data nerds, it helps when data tells a real story of a woman’s life.  That’s why I do a happy dance when CFED launches its annual “Assets & Opportunity” scorecard.  The scorecard is user-friendly and includes data beyond financial assets, such as education, health and jobs.

So, what does the 2014 scorecard tell us about the lives of women and families in the Washington region[i]?  Here are a few things that struck a chord for me:

  • DC and Maryland have stronger asset building policies, and stronger outcomes for families.  Virginia has weaker policies, and weaker outcomes for families.  For example, DC and Maryland have eliminated “asset tests” for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) that discourage recipients from building the savings that could otherwise help them move toward self-sufficiency.
  • Maryland has the highest adoption of asset building policies in the US – but it’s still only 60% of what could be adopted.
  • DC has the worst ratio of homeownership rates in the US, comparing the rate between two-parent (67.7%) and one-parent households (29.2%).  This, to me, says a lot about the financial status of one-parent households in the District, and the importance of investing in asset building for the low-income women we aim to serve.

When the scorecard comes out, I also always look at the “liquid asset poverty rate.”  It’s a jargon-y term for the savings on hand (cash and other accounts that can be liquidated quickly) to help individuals and families in the event of a crisis, like a job loss or medical emergency.  What I’m always shocked to think about is that these assets are what allow someone to “subsist at the poverty level for three months in the absence of income.”  We’re talking about the ability to simply subsist at poverty levels, which is awfully close to slipping below, and is certainly not enough to get by in our region.

  • In Virginia, 51.8% of single female-headed households live in liquid asset poverty.
    If it’s a two-parent household, this rate drops to 27.5%.
  • In Maryland, 48.4% of single female-headed households live in liquid asset poverty.
    If it’s a two-parent household, this rate drops to 21.4%.

These numbers are consistent – or in some cases even lower – than national rates, but they are nevertheless striking.  If half of female-headed households are living in liquid asset poverty – meaning they don’t have the savings to cover three months of basic expenses, let alone the savings to plan for the future – then we have a lot of work to do.

I encourage you to dig deep into the data.  Find out how it speaks to you.

Lauren Stillwell is a program officer at Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

[i] Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s geographic focus includes the District of Columbia; Montgomery County and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland; Arlington and Fairfax Counties, and the city of Alexandria, in Virginia.  Based on available scorecard information, this post broadly discusses state-level information for Maryland and Virginia. There was insufficient data available in many cases for the District.

Message from the President: 2014 Priorities

Here at The Women’s Foundation, we have hit the ground running and are looking forward to an exciting 2014. As we start a brand new year, I want to share a few of my top priorities:

1. Catalyzing Investment:  We will continue to deepen both our impact and reach.  In addition to growing our important Stepping Stones investments supporting low-income women in our region, we are working to catalyze new strategic partnerships in our community that will result in targeted programming and support for middle school girls and their mothers, simultaneously.

2. Developing a Policy Agenda:  In partnership with the California Women’s Foundation, the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, and the Chicago Foundation for Women, we are undertaking research to identify the key components of both a local and national women’s economic security agenda that women’s foundations can play a role in elevating.

3. Engaging our Stakeholders:  We will continue to find ways to engage you in our work, including providing you with opportunities to lend your voice to our efforts and to deepen your connection with the Foundation and the region.

4. Expanding our Resources: We have seen amazing results from our work but must continue to mobilize our community to build the human, social, political and financial capital needed to create the kind of transformation we all believe needs to happen.

We have an opportunity to build the momentum and national messaging generated by The Shriver Report, which emphasizes why we must make investing in low-income women and girls a priority. You — your presence, voice and support — are critical to our efforts to transform the lives of women and girls, and the Washington region. I hope that you’ll stand with us in 2014.

Black History Month: Four Ways the Work of the Civil Rights Movement Continues in 2014

Fannie_Lou_Hamer_1964Just as Black History Month was getting started, I had the opportunity to attend the screening of a new documentary that’s coming out in a few months. Freedom Summer is about the hot, violent summer of 1964, when over a thousand college students from around the country converged on Mississippi. Among other activities, they got African American adults registered to vote and helped launch a new, integrated political party, which went to the Democratic National Convention and challenged the all-white delegation there.

The Freedom Summer represented a major sea change in the Civil Rights Movement, and I’ve been thinking a lot about its lasting effects as Black History Month has gotten underway. This year’s theme, “Civil Rights in America,” is a nod to that long-term impact and to the fact that black history is really a shared history here in the United States. Here are four ways the Civil Rights Movement continues to affect us all today:

1. The Voting Rights ActThen: At the end of the Freedom Summer, a group of disenfranchised black Mississippians – supported and organized in part by the volunteer students – walked into the Democratic National Convention and challenged the status quo. The next year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discrimination in voting and is considered the most effective civil rights statute enacted by Congress. Of course, the Freedom Summer participants were a fraction of the thousands of people pushing for this, but their concentration on getting Mississippians registered to vote left its mark. Since the 1980s, Mississippi has elected more black officials than any other state.

Now: Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that requires nine states with histories of racial discrimination to get clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court to make any voting law changes. Within 24 hours, five of those states had already moved ahead “with voter ID laws, some of which had already been rejected as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act,” reported Frontline. Given that voter ID laws profoundly impact poor, minority and elderly voters, the fight for full enfranchisement continues.

2. Community InvolvementThen: The Civil Rights Movement remains one of the most effective models for mobilizing communities toward a common cause. One of the features of the movement was how diverse the activists were for the times. The well-off worked alongside those living in poverty. Women worked to ensure that they were represented in all activities that were undertaken. And, of course, the activists working towards racial integration had to be integrated themselves. Full participation was both the ends and the means of the movement.

Now: Organizers and policymakers see the value of informing and engaging the broader public. By winning hearts and minds, they are raising the financial and social capital needed to win elections, change laws and significantly influence public opinion. Additionally, it has been really exciting to see new conversations taking place online around recognizing privilege and the impact it can have – both negative and positive – on activism. Last year, Gina Crosley-Corcoran wrote this really thoughtful piece on “explaining white privilege to a broke white person.”

3. Political RepresentationThen: In the early 1960s, nearly half of Mississippi’s population was black, but only about five percent of adults had been able to register to vote, making it impossible for the “official” delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 to truly represent the residents of Mississippi. That’s why the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) went to the convention to challenge the all-white delegation.

Now: Today, 19 percent of members of Congress are women. Eight percent are African American, seven percent are Hispanic or Latino, and two percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders.[i] All of these numbers are well below representation across the US population. Additionally, the median net worth of Congress is $1,008,767,[ii] while the median net worth of the American family is estimated at $77,300.[iii]

At the federal level in particular, we are nowhere close to true representation. Fortunately, organizations like EMILY’S List are encouraging and supporting women and minorities who want to run for office. And campaign finance reform like Clean Elections laws are making it possible for candidates who aren’t wealthy – or connected to a network of wealthy donors/influencers – to run for office.

4. Giving a Voice to the VoicelessThen: The highlight of the Freedom Summer documentary was that it included Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony to Democratic Party officials when black Mississippians were trying to secure their representation at the DNC in 1964. Hamer was a sharecropper who was fired and forced out of her home after she registered to vote. Undeterred – even after being beaten to near death by police – she traveled the state organizing Mississippians and taking on a leadership role in the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Hamer’s emotional testimony and plea for blacks to be treated as “first-class citizens” visibly moved the committee that was to decide whether or not the MFDP would be included in the convention. A few incredible things happened during her testimony (you’ll have to watch the documentary to get details!), but suffice it to say that a black woman from rural Mississippi who’d spent her life in poverty had a profound effect on people across the country – including the President. She went on to run for Congress, secured childcare and family services for others living in poverty, and helped launch the National Women’s Political Caucus. The Civil Rights Movement helped women like Hamer, Rosa Parks and Viviane Malone Jones find and raise their voices.

Now: At first glance, these voices may seem like they are vulnerable, inexperienced or unexpected. But the women to whom they belong have incredible power, and are often well-equipped to help create and implement solutions to problems about which they have first-hand knowledge. Today, we are moved to action by the words of women like Malala YousafzaiNaquasia LaGrande, Zerlina Maxwell and Laverne Cox, among many others.

When organizations like Washington Area Women’s Foundation continue to ensure that all women have a seat at the table and a forum for their voices, we, too can help create the sea change that transforms our community and carry on a legacy that has had a tremendous impact on our shared history.

Photo: Fannie Lou Hamer testifies before the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.