Barbie is far from a feminist icon, but with the introduction of "Entrepreneur Barbie" earlier this week several prominent real-life women entrepreneurs hope she’s taking a very tiny high-heeled step in the right direction.
The doll, which was launched by Ruth Hander in 1959, has had a staggering 150 jobs over the decades, and several of her careers have played heavily into stereotypes: model, ballerina, flight attendant, candy striper.
As Mattel points out however, she also held many positions long before real-life women did. She was an astronaut in the 1960s, a CEO in the 1980s, and a presidential candidate in the 1990s. She’s also been a surgeon, a paleontologist, and a computer engineer.
This most recent addition to Barbie’s career portfolio speaks to the recent conversation around the lack of women in Silicon Valley.
The doll’s marketing backstory explains that she has partnered with eight female entrepreneurs, who serve as her "Chief Inspirational Officers" (CIO). (Never mind the fact that eight people in charge of "inspiration" doesn’t sound like a very solid business plan.)
To Barbie’s credit, she’s assembled an impressive board of fellow women entrepreneurs, including Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code; Susan Feldman and Alison Pincus, founders of One Kings Lane; and Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, founders of Rent the Runway, among others.
The roles of Barbie’s CIOs is touted as part of a bigger mission that hasn’t been attached to the doll’s past careers. Several of the entrepreneurs took part in a Twitter chat on Wednesday using the hashtag #BarbieChat. The campaign also includes a LinkedIn page for Barbie and a billboard in Times Square using the hashtag #unapologetic (a nod to the fact that women often feel like they have to apologize for their presence in male-dominated careers).
But empowering messages like these seem more likely to reach and resonate with moms than little girls.
Beyond Barbie’s title and smartphone, will young girls really be inspired to start their own businesses after playing with the doll? Probably not, but her CIOs seem to hope that the doll will be just the first part of the conversation. They’ve promised to participate in an "online portal" at Barbie.com/entrepreneur that will offer "insights and tips for moms and their young entrepreneurs" (conspicuously not young girls and their fathers). So far the page just includes bios of the CIOs.
Barbie has, of course, been widely criticized for her unrealistic body proportions, which many believe give girls a poor body image. Perhaps more damning, according to Wired, is a study from Oregon State University that suggested that playing with Barbies might even have a negative effect on the career opportunities of girls.
Encouraging girls away from traditionally "pink aisle" toys like Barbie and toward building and problem-solving toys like Legos and GolideBlox may be a better way to encourage little girls to aspire to traditionally male-dominated careers.
But little girls have played with dolls for generations, and that’s not likely to change completely anytime soon—according to Mattel, 90% of girls ages 3-10 own at least one Barbie doll, while girls in general own an average of 12.
When girls create narratives for their dolls at least now maybe they’ll create a world where women can get funding.