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 Catherine Hill, Ph.D. 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.”
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.
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.