The Barbie movie broke box office records around the world and garnered award nominations. Barbie’s impressive resume of STEM careers could inspire girls everywhere into science, tech, engineering and maths.
But we can’t leave it all to a doll.
What do Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Dr Antje Boetius, Katya Echazarreta and Professor Sarah Gilbert have in common?
They’re all trailblazers – Dr Aderin-Pocock is a renowned astronomer and TV presenter; Dr Boetius is a marine microbiologist and recipient of the Gottfried-Wilhelm-Leibniz Prize; Echazarreta is an innovative electrical engineer, science broadcaster and the first Mexican-born woman in space; Professor Gilbert led the development of a successful vaccine against SARS-Cov‑2 at the University of Oxford during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They’re also Barbies.
The 2023 Barbie movie has caught the imagination of cinemagoers around the world, with its witty takedowns of the patriarchy and self-aware sendups of the iconic doll’s past.
When Barbie was launched in 1959, she was a year away from her first job as a fashion designer. By 1965 she was an astronaut. Quite a career trajectory for an American doll born in a decade when women were celebrated chiefly as wives and mothers.
Mattel, the toy company that makes Barbie, openly hopes to inspire girls’ future professional interests. Were any subsequent spacewomen inspired by a popular doll showing the way? It seems like a stretch, but for generations of little girls, a doll with a job in STEM will have been an early signal that such careers aren’t just for boys.
To date, Barbie’s extensive resumé lists these STEM roles:
- Vaccine scientist
- Renewable Energy Engineer
- Marine Biologist
- Computer Engineer
- Robotics Engineer
- Conservation Scientist
- Star Fleet Engineering Officer (Star Trek crossover)
- Game Developer
- Aircraft Engineer
Yes, she’s also been a mermaid and a tooth fairy, but as 11.5‑inch role models go, Barbie isn’t doing too badly.
Many of Barbie’s, and other brand’s, medical and science careers have emerged in the last decade. Whilst the marketing primarily serves to sell dolls, it does help to highlight STEM careers to millions of girls.
For example, when British space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock was named a Barbie Role Model in 2023, she hoped it would mean something to young children.
‘I want to inspire the next generation of scientists, and especially girls,’ Dr Aderin-Pocock told the BBC. ‘And let them know that STEM is for them.’
Here are a few other women in STEM that Mattel could consider adding to their list (and thank us later)
As mentioned, Barbie’s first STEM career was as an astronaut. To date, 73 of the world’s 656 space travellers are women — just over 11%. The first woman in space was, USSR cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who achieved orbit in 1963, possibly inspiring Barbie’s astronomical promotion in 1965.
Twenty years later Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. The first Brit was Helen Sharman, in 1991, and Mae Jemison broke barriers as the first African American astronaut to go to space in 1992. Could any of these inspire their own Barbies?
How about Nobel Prizewinners that have helped shape our understanding of genetics and development, leading to pioneering therapeutics?
- Katalin “Kati” Karikó, who was recognised for her work on mRNA vaccines that resulted in several targeting COVID-19.
- Jennifer Doudna and Emanuelle Charpentier, who received theirs for developing the CRISPR method of genome editing. The first CRISPR-based treatment has just been approved.
- Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, who received Nobel Prizes for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase, enhancing our understanding of ageing.
- Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was amongst the 1995 honorees for discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development.
- Barbara McClintock’s studies in a corn field on Long Island, NY, resulted in a Nobel Prize for her discovery of mobile genetic elements, also known as jumping genes.
And of course, Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie are household names. We recommend they too, should, be celebrated as Barbies. We must add that this list isn’t exhaustive.
STEM career stats of real women
Making STEM more inclusive should not be left to do alone, because the real-life stats indicate that done alone is there’s still a long way to go to bring gender parity to STEM careers — and it’s a journey the world urgently needs to make.
(Statistics are global where data is available; US where no global data is available.)
Entomologist 25.9% (US)
Why do we need more women in STEM roles?
Closing the STEM gender gap would have profound benefits.
Economic growth is just one. Across all industries, global GDP could rise by 26% by 2025 if gender parity was achieved. There is a global scarcity of talent challenging STEM employers, and women are a largely untapped resource. If the skills aren’t found to fill critical positions, the fall-out is a significant drop in the prospects of entire nations.
The fate of the planet looks brighter in a truly inclusive world. According to One Earth, 17 different studies confirm that women’s presence in conservation and natural resource management results in better outcomes for sustainability, compliance, accountability and conflict resolution.
Meanwhile, a study by MIT posits gender parity in STEM careers would also lead to improved research and better products, serving a wider range of consumers.
So how do we feminise STEM?
Flesh and blood role models are crucial, but so is a sea-change in attitudes. While girls are more likely than boys to aspire to caring roles, like doctor or vet, studies suggest boys are four times more likely to want an engineering career and twice as likely to want to be scientists.
To signpost opportunities, we must challenge gender bias at home and in classrooms — because studies in the UK and the US found children ruling out options for themselves even at the age of six, thanks to ingrained beliefs based on gender stereotypes.
At CPI we’re proud to support women and girls in STEM careers — a goal we pursue through a series of initiatives alongside transparent reporting and monitoring. Whilst the median gender pay gap at CPI has increased slightly, female representation has increased from 39.0% in 2022 to 40.7% in 2023. We believe that the pay gap is driven by the representation of men and women at senior levels in the organisation, something that is reflected across the industry as a whole. We are facing this challenge head on: supporting the next generation of women and girls to consider careers in science through our STEM ambassador programme; offering a wide range of early careers opportunities and refining our recruitment and hiring processes.
Through Empowering Partners, we are supporting female entrepreneurs like Oceanium CEO Karen Scofield Seal who is leading a team developing sustainable bio-packaging from seaweed, and Waste2Fresh, which is reducing water pollution in textiles – benefiting an industry with mostly female workers.
Our STEM ambassadors work in schools to inspire girls and our energetic recruitment across all genders saw an apprenticeship intake of 66% women in technical lab roles in 2021.
These are the kind of actions which take employers to the endgame – meeting UN’s Sustainability Development Goal 5 — Empowering Women & Girls.
And if Barbie helps us get there, we welcome her aboard.
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