Did you know that the World Economic Forum predicted that it will take until 2133 to achieve gender parity? That’s right, 118 years from now. Between the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Women-in-Engineering Day, Cybermentor, and the Womensphere Emerging Leaders Summit, the last few months have been filled with inspirational women, important initiatives, and rising potential. I have been very fortunate to meet some amazing women and some very supportive men who are all working to close the gap in gender parity. What can you do in your own life to help? Check out the link below. #WomenFastForward
I have been meaning to write this post for a while, and with the recent movie launch of Fifty Shades of Grey, it is more relevant than ever.
All artists worry about plagiarism, whether it’s ensuring that your ideas are considered original, or having someone else admire your own work a little too closely. There’s a fine line between drawing inspiration from someone else, and stealing their intellectual property. No one understands this better than fan fiction writers. Writing fan fiction can be a great way to keep your favourite characters alive long after their creator has finished with them, but how much liberty is too much liberty? Most writers are happy to encourage their fans to create stories in their beloved universes with the caveat that no suggestions or plots be directly passed on to the author.
But what happens if a creative fan decides to name your characters something else and turn a piece of fan fiction into a publication… a publication that becomes one of the best-selling books of all time?
Fifty Shades of Grey has become one of the most discussed books ever, and is now famous as a steamy movie. Most people know E. L. James started her trilogy as Twilight fan fiction, but what they SHOULD be talking about is Stephenie Meyer’s classy reaction to her fan’s success.
I’m not going to touch on the controversial content elements of either book series, though I will say that I read all three Fifty Shades books and all four Twilight books. In my mind, there is no question that Christian Grey is Meyer’s possessive vampire Edward with an edgier and tragic backstory. Ana’s admirer-kept-in-the-friend-zone Jose is the same person as long-suffering werewolf Jacob Black, and Anastasia Steele, while possibly the most changed, still retains the gloomier aspects of Bella Swan.
Some reviewers have stated that the two series are “worlds apart”, but there is no denying that the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey have been shaped to match their fan fiction origins. It would be easy for Stephenie Meyer to be resentful of E. L. James’ success, easy for her to call foul. Meyer may be shocked, horrified even, by the R-rated adventures James has taken her characters through, adventures that are not exactly in-line with Meyer’s religious and personal views. Twilight itself is interwoven with Mormon principles and beliefs, from premarital abstinence to forever families, which are indeed “worlds apart” from the violence and sexuality in Fifty Shades. But despite the media’s determination to get a rise out of Meyer, her responses have remained diplomatic, classy, and warm.
When asked about Fifty Shades of Grey and James’ success (in an MTV News interview):
“I haven’t read it. I mean, that’s really not my genre, not my thing,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve heard about it; I haven’t really gotten into it that much. Good on her — she’s doing well. That’s great!”
When asked about her feelings about fan fiction origin of Fifty Shades (same interview: http://www.mtv.com/news/1685954/fifty-shades-of-grey-stephenie-meyer/):
“It might not exist in the exact form that it’s in,” Meyer said. “Obviously, [James] had a story in her, and so it would’ve come out in some other way.”
Brava, Stephenie. Brava.
What do you think? How far is too far when it comes to the ethics of fan fiction?
This is Computer Engineering Barbie. I actually own one, a gift from my parents when I was working on my undergraduate degree in computer engineering. I can remember sitting in the homeroom with my fellow female students in 2010, all of us eager to vote in the poll for Barbie’s newest career. When Mattel announced that computer engineering had won the poll, it turned out that many adult voters like myself were the ones who had influenced the vote. It was women in tech who voted in droves, recognizing the need to promote computing science as a completely viable and potential career path for any young girl. The fact that computer engineering was even a poll option in the first place was a sign to women that Mattel recognized the need to diverse Barbie’s own goals and their own messages to young girls.
And to be honest, I love my Computer Engineering Barbie. Sure, she’s sparkly and pink, but I get it, Mattel has a brand to sell. Personally, I thought the binary was a nice touch, and most importantly, she got young girls asking what Barbie does as a computer engineer. It was only natural that Random House decided to publish a companion book as part of their “I can be…” series this year.
And that’s where it all fell apart.
Writer Pamela Ribon does a great job of breaking down the entire story page-by-page and dissecting every sexist theme in this post (warning, some strong language). You can imagine my dismay as I read through the story myself, feeling increasingly disheartened as Barbie, an aspiring computer engineer, designs great game ideas but requires men to turn them into reality, and needs her two male friends to fix her computer problems. Barbie herself does not solve a single problem as a computer engineer, or make any contribution as a computer engineer whatsoever. The author could have switched out “computer engineer” with almost any other subject of study and the story still would have made sense.
When I finished reading, all I could think was “Who the hell thought this was a good idea?” I felt betrayed, like Mattel and Randomhouse had collaborated to pull an elaborate bait-and-switch on hopeful tech advocates everywhere. And I’m far from the only outraged reader. The comments on Amazon and Goodreads, from women and men alike, were just as appalled and disbelieving. My favourites included reviews such as “waste of tree carcasses” and “this would have been sexist in the 50s”. Many people, myself included, were also disappointed to find out the author, Susan Marenco, is a woman born and raised near Silicon Valley, the home of tech development. How could this successful and popular children’s author have been so off the mark?
One of my male colleagues asked me why I cared so much about a child’s toy. I stopped to think for a second. I’m not critical about Disney princesses or pink ballgowns or sparkling tiaras. But those are fantasy. Computer Engineering Barbie was supposed to represent a new reality, and I guess that’s where my dismay comes from. What was supposed to be a symbol of changing attitudes towards women in tech has actually set us back. My research work is heavily related to diversity in engineering, and I find myself discovering more and more of these sorts of problems and issues every day.
Since I started drafting this post, the Internet has exploded with reaction, prompting a response on Barbie’s official Facebook page.
“The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”
The apology is a good first step, but 2010 was pretty recently… hardly the Dark Ages. And the paperback version was released in 2013… when it should have been pulled from the shelves instead.
I recently attended the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, and as usual, I was overwhelmed by the inspiring and influential speakers and professionals. But in the three years that I have attended the conference, the most powerful moment is always when an undergraduate student tells me how excited they are to return to school and share their enthusiasm for engineering with other women. Moments like that are why we can’t afford to be silent about messages like the ones being spread in this saddening book.
The good news is that it seems that our voices have finally been heard. At last check, it appears that the book has now been discontinued. Good luck Barbie, may your next career be more carefully thought out.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
Over the past month, I’ve been fortunate to have had several travel opportunities. I’ve had the chance to meet some amazing people and listen to some incredibly inspiring talks. Thank you to all of those who made it possible, and my poor husband who has barely seen me in a month…
Alberta Winds Tour to MusicFest Canada: It’s been a long time since I’ve gone on an ensemble tour, and this year’s Alberta Winds tour did not disappoint! We were invited as an evening guest ensemble for MusicFest Canada, and it was fantastic to play for all the talented students attending the festival in Vancouver. The real treat, however, was getting to reconnect with Dr. Mark Hopkins from Acadia University!
CCWEST 2014: I was invited to attend the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades & Technology annual conference in Regina, and I am so glad I attended! The entire conference was jam-packed with major speakers and really inspiring sessions on gender issues in STEM fields. I also couldn’t help but notice one huge theme that ran through all of the plenary talks- the role of mothers. Dr. Roberta Bondar, Hayley Wickenheiser, Alvin Law, Dr. Linda Haverstock… all of them cited their mothers as being a huge influence on their ability to overcome obstacles and reflect differently on life. Sure made me appreciate my own mother even more.
I also had a fantastic time at the writing workshop held by Kate Braid and Dr. Pat Miller-Schroeder. It was extremely refreshing to hear writing advice from technical women, and I can’t wait to put some of their suggestions into action! Also started reading Kate Braid’s memoir, Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World, and I’m loving it!
CEEA 2013: I was pleased to be a part of the organizing committee for the Canadian Engineering Education Association‘s annual conference held this year in beautiful Canmore, Alberta. I was honoured to meet so many Canadian researchers who know the importance of education innovation within the engineering field, and I had a great experience presenting two papers. And I’m glad some of my colleagues persuaded me to do a short sunset hike near Grassi Lakes.
ASEE 2014: Aside from a 7 am presentation slot, I had a great time at the annual conference and exposition of the American Society for Engineering Education. This year I was able to attend several workshops by Texas Instruments, and I’m looking forward to incorporating their new technologies into some of my work. Also took myself kayaking down the Indianapolis canal… coolest thing I’ve ever seen in a city. Calgary needs a canal.
A huge, long-overdue thank you to the Calgary Youth Science Fair for having me as a plenary speaker this year! The amazing achievements and projects on display were inspirational. I can’t wait to see what these students do in their future careers. Keep up the great work.
I also owe a thank you to all of the young women who participated in Explore IT day this year! I really enjoyed watching all of your robotic creations come to life, and I hope you enjoyed hearing Lisa and I play. Welcome to the wonderful world of electrical and computer engineering.
Super excited to kick things off as a speaker at women in engineering day tomorrow! Can’t wait to see all the great demos that the departments have been working hard to prepare for all the visiting girls.
For any DSP aficionados out there, Circuit Cellar has just released a two part article co-authored by myself, Mike Smith, and Maddie Lowe combining embedded DSP with SQL. Part 1 is featured in their July edition, with Part 2 to follow in August.
Also, I realized I forgot to post my three minute thesis video! I was completely honoured earlier this year to be the winner of the University of Calgary’s first Three Minute Thesis competition. What an amazing opportunity to share my research work with the community. You can view all of the amazing research presentations, courtesy of NUTV, below!
Wow, I’ve been pretty silent this past year. But I’m excited to announce that it wasn’t because of a lack of news, but rather the result of being immersed in a large life change. Exactly one year ago, I returned from a life-altering research trip to Portugal and Spain. While I was there, I had the opportunity to work with disadvantaged elementary schools in Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal. Along with three other engineering researchers, we gave talks about scientists who were also composers/musicians, and how music influenced their life work. We also gave live performances of compositions written by the scientists, including pieces by Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo di Vinci. But the best part of our tour was seeing the way the students responded to our visit. They were so excited and engaged, and even prepared projects to show us when we arrived. One of my favourites was Galileo’s lute created out of paper mache with brightly coloured foam planets strung across the instrument. This visual representation of the connections between science and music resonated so strongly within me that when I returned to my hotel room, I took a look at my life. I had to admit that while I was interested in my signal processing research, I was passionate about cross-disciplinary workshops and presenting to kids. What started out as an occasional volunteer activity years ago had become my favourite aspect of research. I wanted to create more workshops for schools, combining seemingly unrelated subjects and showing the amazing connections between science and the arts.
So I did the unthinkable. When I returned to Calgary, I told my supervisor, my department head, and my graduate studies head that I was ready for a change. I loved research, but I wanted to focus on engineering education and the integration of engineering concepts in non-traditional areas. What happened next surprised me, and filled me with gratitude. Not only were they understanding, they all helped me transition to the area I wanted to work in. Within weeks, I had transferred completely to a new lab, new supervisor, and a new thesis topic. After a crazy year learning about education innovation, early engineering education and curriculum objectives, I developed a series of projects to help grade 5 teachers describe the basics of electricity to their students. After working with approximately 300 students and teachers in the Calgary area to test my modules, I am now months away from defending my masters thesis. I recently won the University of Calgary’s Three-Minute Thesis competition with a presentation of my engineering education research work (video coming soon!). Even better, I have plans to continue with a PhD in this area. I can’t believe how much I enjoy my research work. I am incredibly appreciative of this day job that allows me to combine intellectual freedom, engineering, education, and even my love of the arts.
Long story short, it’s been a wild year, but also an extremely rewarding one. Add in a marriage proposal from the love of my life, and the purchase of a new home with my new fiance, and you have the recipe for the last 12 months of my life! Thanks for reading, I hope to update more often now. I have a couple of conferences coming up in the next month, and I can’t wait to share those experiences with you.
I’ll admit it, I’m addicted to webcomics. Not all of them, but once I find one I really like, I go back to the beginning of the archive and read non-stop until I’m all caught up. So tonight I’m doing my part in spreading awareness about a smartphone app that has been taking advantage of webcomic artists. Read the article, and see if your favourite webcomic is listed.