By Diane Cooke
Could Barbie encourage more girls to become engineers?
Mattel Inc the doll's US manufacturers seem to think so. It is hoped that Robotics Engineer Barbie, might alter STEM stereotypes and encourage young girls to forge careers in the sector.
This is not the first time Barbie has found a career path in STEM (it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) – since 1959, the iconic doll has held roles including astronaut, scientist, video game developer and computer engineer.
With only 24 percent of UK STEM jobs held by women according to WISE, Britain needs more female role models to encourage young girls into the sector.
Founder of STEM Women, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, told The Manufacturer: “When you ask children to draw a scientist at a young age, they will draw both men and women.
“Then after a certain age they tend to only draw older, white men, Einstein types and this is because of cultural conditioning.”
Mattel, however, has been criticised for not practising what it preaches. The company previously had a female CEO – the company’s second ever woman – Margo Georgiadis who was replaced by Ynon Kreiz. The company, at present only has one woman – out of seven – on its board of directors, according to The Manufacturer.
Laura Bates, writing for The Guardian, points out other problems with Barbie addressing gender stereotypes. The products that engineering Barbie encourages girls to build are limited to fashion and household chores: dresses, a moving clothes rack and a washing machine. And they are all pink.
The Barbie STEM kit also offers girls aged from four to eight the opportunity to build a jewellery holder and a shoe rack.
Writes Bates: "The contradictory messaging, which sets out with the aim of overcoming gender stereotypes before falling for them hook, line and sinker, is just the latest in a long line of very similar failures. The European Commission’s doomed “Science: it’s a girl thing!” campaign tried to excite girls about chemistry with a pink lipstick logo and a video featuring giggling, mini-skirted girls dancing amidst floating makeup. Then there was energy company EDF’s misguidedly named #PrettyCurious campaign, swiftly followed by IBM’s #HackAHairdryer."
Engineer Mariana Bontempo says the answer lies in firing women's imaginations and confidence.
"From my experiences and observations, I think the best way to ensure equivalent participation of female and male students in STEM degrees is to promote career discovery programmes for young female students that allow them to explore their potential, curiosity and passion for innovation.
"By creating different and interesting experiences for girls where they can explore technology in an interactive and insightful way – such as workshops in robotics, mechanics and coding – it is possible to give them practical knowledge and understanding of the impact that they can have being part of innovative projects.
"Furthermore, it is also important to create development-oriented programmes for students, through initiatives and discussions about female empowerment in schools and universities. Educational organisations, particularly in emerging markets, should come together to develop student programmes and projects to encourage women to take up STEM degrees.
"With this in mind, we should bring together students and young professionals at events, panel discussions, workshops, career discovery campaigns and in-house activities that can expand the community of women who are passionate about technology and engineering."
A comment at the bottom of Mariana's article in timeshighereducation.com, states: "Err a 5 minute google search will show over a hundred such workshops, networks, campaigns, apprenticeships, enticements, you name it, to get girls into STEM. There seems to be a mountain of opportunity for girls to enter stem if they are interested. Not only that, research shows that in an interview with 2 men, the employer is likely to pick the women for the stem job. It's getting a little disingenuous this story about lack of opportunities when you see the enormous amount of opportunity out there for girls."
Which maybe why the industry has had to resort to Barbie to hammer home the message.