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Her name is Barbie and she is a computer engineer

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Venturing beyond the pink plastic and chic opulence of her DreamHouse, the Barbie of today wears a lab coat, mixing chemicals or programing a robot on her computer.

Mattel’s new line of Career Dolls are, in part, the product of the company’s Barbie Global Advisory Council (BGAC), which has sought out the expertise of 12 individuals in STEM-related fields across the country to help give direction to the company.

One of those experts happens to be the UW’s very own associate professor of psychology, Sapna Cheryan, who has been a member of the council since May. 

“I get questions from time to time and give my thoughts on what is important in the space of girls and especially when it comes to girls and STEM fields,” Cheryan said.

Cheryan’s research revolves around cultural stereotypes and their impact on racial and gender disparities in society. One of her focuses has been to find ways to encourage girls to be interested in STEM. Incidentally, this was also the interest of Mattel, the designer of the iconic Barbie doll.

A 2017 release from the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that “Women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015 but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs.” At the same time, “women constitute slightly more than half of college educated workers but make up only 25 percent of college educated STEM workers.”

Cheryan, who had signed a nondisclosure agreement with Mattel, could not give specifics as to what she said during her consultations. Her feedback so far has revolved around “big picture” ideas influenced by her research, as opposed to critiques of individual products.

“One of the ways to empower girls is to allow them to put different careers on the table that they might not be considering right now,” Cheryan said. “How do we get girls more interested in these fields and what can we do to change the image of these fields to increase girls’ and women’s interest?” 

“Barbie is one piece of that image,” she said. 

Barbie’s evolution from fashionista to scientist did not start in the United States, but 1950s Germany.

Time magazine describes the doll’s beginnings as a salacious comic strip featuring an expensive call girl named Bild Lilli, whose popularity would lead to the creation of a doll. Intended as adult novelty, the doll nonetheless peaked the interest of Barbara Handler, the 15-year-old daughter of Ruth Handler, co-founder of the Mattel toy company.

The Americans came across the doll in 1956 while vacationing in Switzerland. Several years later, Handler would release her adaptation, which she named Barbie, after her daughter.

Decades later, the toy is now a familiar staple of many girls’ childhoods.  

Barbara Domonkos, the toy buyer for Kids Club in University Village, has worked at the business for 23 years and has witnessed firsthand how Barbie has adapted to the demands of a different society.  

“They are changing the looks of Barbie in the sense that [she’s] more diverse in ethnicity but also in body style,” Domonkos said. “The last few years we’re seeing more dolls that aren’t exaggerated in the chest area or really thin looking, so they are modeling it more towards what real girls and real women look like.”

She also noticed the recent addition of Barbies with scientific careers, breaking from the doll’s traditional roles as cook, artist, and teacher.

“[Kids] role-play with dolls,” Domonkos said. “They can either experiment with their own identity through that role-playing with dolls or dress up or they are playing out what they see in the world.” 

It is difficult to determine why a child plays with a particular doll, Cheryan said. But in certain cases, it can be a reflection of what a child feels is expected of them by society.

She referred to a study that was conducted during the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case to prove the negative effects of racial segregation in schools. African-American children were shown two white and two black dolls and asked which ones were “nice” or “bad.” The majority labeled the black doll as bad, while identifying with the white doll.

Cheryan took a particular liking to the new Robotics Engineer Doll, which was gifted to her by a friend. “That is a STEM field that women are underrepresented in,” she said. “I’m glad [Mattel] picked an engineering field and one that maybe a lot of 6-year-old girls haven’t heard of.”

“Continuing to make Barbie showcase careers that girls might not be aware of or might think are something that’s more appropriate for boys or men, I think that’s a great future direction.”

On March 9, 1959, Handler introduced Barbie to the world for the first time. Fifty-nine years later, the doll appears to be living up to her original motto. 

“You can be anything.”


Reach reporter Alexander Tufel at Twitter: @alexUWDAILY

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