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“Math is tough!”: Barbie in the 21st Century

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Growing up on a dangerously high dose of The Simpsons, there are a lot of moments that have stuck with me into adulthood, most of which still force me to crack at least a small smirk as I am reminded of them by the minute events of everyday life. More surprising are the moments that generated, and continue to resonate, a deeper emotional reaction.

It was one of these deeper moments that I was reminded of last week when Mattel announced Barbie’s newest occupation: Entrepreneur.

While at the mall, Lisa (the 8-year-old daughter and voice of reason in the Simpson family) spots the new, talking Malibu Stacy (the Barbie equivalent in the Simpson universe). She purchases the doll and goes home immediately to play with it, setting up a small press conference complete with other, nontalking dolls for the new-and-improved talking Malibu Stacy to address.

"A hush falls over the general assembly as Stacy approaches the podium to deliver what will no doubt be a stirring and memorable address," Lisa narrates as she walks the doll to the podium.

She pulls the cord attached to the dolls back.

“I wish they taught shopping in school!” are the dolls first words.

Sure, The Simpsons is a cartoon and this moment extreme, but like all satire, this moment takes a characteristic of our culture and follows it to its logical extreme (the first talking Barbie cried, “Math is tough!”). And if nothing else, this is a testament to that idea: 20 years after the initial airing of Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy, Mattel unveils Entrepreneur Barbie.

What makes Barbie an entrepreneur? Well, it’s her business formal dress and high heels complete with a tablet, smartphone and briefcase, of course. Oh, and she’s now on LinkedIn if you’d like to connect with her for no reason.

This is not to say Mattel shouldn’t be recognized for at least attempting to keep up with the times. In fact, there are plenty championing Mattel for increasing visibility of women in the entrepreneur field. Eight female business women, including Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani, are serving as Barbie’s “Chief Inspiration Officers,” and providing inspirational writings to accompany Entrepreneur Barbie’s packaging.

The problem is while Mattel tries to keep Barbie relevant in the 21st Century, it’s still looking through the lens of the 1960’s: Take away her tablet and smartphone and Barbie would fit right in at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper & Partners.

This misfire becomes even more glaring when you stand Barbie next to more progressive alternatives such as GoldieBlox.

Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, was frustrated by the lack of women in her engineering courses. After graduation, she began designing a collection of toys to introduce basic engineering concepts to young girls. Like Entrepreneur Barbie, this increases visibility of unlikely career fields for young girls, but in a much more substantive way.

And when you start pairing numbers with the issues, having substance to the increased visibility becomes increasingly important:

As technology has continued to become ever-present in our lives, the percentage of women in technology has actually declined over the last quarter century. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce study from 2011, women held only 24 percent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs while representing almost half of all jobs in the U.S.

Another Department of Commerce study shows that STEM field jobs are growing a rate faster than most other fields.

So what happens when a job sector takes off and women remain (increasingly) under represented?

Do the math.

And things aren’t any better for women looking to blaze their own trails: Despite the numbers of women-founded tech companies ranging from 30 to 60 percent, women only see 7 percent of venture capitalist investment.

While increased visibility may help these numbers, perhaps Barbie isn’t the best vehicle.

Launched in 1959, Barbie’s function was that of a fashion doll, the focus being on her clothes and appearance. That’s why you can give her accessories like an iPhone and call her an entrepreneur. Though people suggest that Barbies vast employment history sets a positive example for girls, but a recent study from Oregon State University suggests playing with Barbie’s might actually limit employment possibilities in a young girl’s mind.

Maybe it’s just a little difficult to reconcile Astronaut and Entrepreneur Barbie with the maxim “Math is tough!”

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Andrew Sheldon

Andrew Sheldon

Andrew Sheldon covers technology and education. His email is andrews@njbiz.com and he is @AndrewsNJBIZ on Twitter.

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