University of Washington's Sapna Cheryan has just been named to the Barbie Global Advisory Council. She's studied gender for 15 years and will bring that expertise to the job, aiming to help Barbie have more social impact with girls.
“Here’s an idea,” I told Sapna Cheryan. “How about ‘Resist! Barbie’?”
She comes fitted with clenched fists for fighting off “grabbers” and bendable knees that fit squarely into the crotch of whoever gets too close.
“Right,” Cheryan said with a laugh.
Or maybe “Human Resources Barbie,” who comes complete with her own training room, where knuckle-headed Ken dolls can be placed in chairs and taught what “no” means.
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It was worth a try. For Cheryan, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology, has just been named to the Barbie Global Advisory Council, “a collective sounding board for the brand,” according to Barbie’s parent company, Mattel.
Cheryan, 40, seems a perfect choice for the one-year position. Along with her teaching, she has been studying gender for 15 years, and is the director of the UW’s Stereotypes, Identity and Belonging Lab.
She has also given public lectures in which she explains how “Computer Engineer Barbie” came to be. Mattel gave girls a chance to vote on which Barbie they wanted to see next in its “career” series: Computer Engineer Barbie or News Anchor Barbie?
Women in tech overwhelmed the results, giving the data-minded Barbie the popular vote.
But young girls still liked — and voted for — the News Anchor. So Mattel produced both.
“It set the question out there,” Cheryan said. “So many people are trying to get girls into the male-dominated, STEM field. But girls are still going to the more female-dominated careers.”
Her data backs this up, showing that women are more likely to get undergraduate degrees in biology (50 percent are female) and almost as likely to degree in chemistry (47 percent) and math (45 percent). But when it comes to Computer Science and Physics, those percentages drop to less than 20 percent.
So when Cheryan saw that Mattel’s newest “Career of the Year Barbie” was a Robotics Engineer, “I was like, ‘Great. That’s the field where we need more role models,'” she said. “‘Biology Barbie’ is still good, but if we’re trying to reduce women’s under-representation, we need to do more.
“I am trying to give research-based advice on where Barbie can have the most impact,” she continued. “Where we need more girls.”
And don’t think Barbie doesn’t have that kind of pull. That 59-year-old little doll (whose Twitter profile places her in Malibu, of course) has some of the largest brand recognition in the world.
“The vast majority of girls has at least heard of Barbie,” Cheryan said. “They have a lot of reach and influence in fashion and careers and people who collect Barbies.”
Indeed, the new trend on Instagram is called “Barbie feet,” which involves standing on your tiptoes or extending your feet — like the doll’s — to make your legs look longer. (Mm-kay.)
“But by her changing her careers, she can change a girl’s choice?” Cheryan asked. “I don’t know. But from my perspective, one of the reasons women are under-represented is because the image of the field makes girls feel they aren’t welcome there.
“Having Barbie there doesn’t hurt, as long as she does it well.”
There have been a few snags. In one book, Barbie is quoted as saying “Math is hard!” and Computer Engineer Barbie didn’t write her own code. She asked a male engineer to do it for her.
“That’s why I’m there,” Cheryan said. “So that when Mattel is putting out STEM-related Barbie, they’re not sending out messages that can make things worse.”
Cheryan might be the only grown woman with more Barbies now than she had when she was a little girl in Central Illinois. She and her sister had three or four Barbies, a pink convertible and a tub. (“I wasn’t obsessed with them,” she said. “But I remember them fondly.”)
Now she owns more than her own 6-year-old daughter.
It started when a friend gave her a Computer Engineer Barbie. When she was named to the Barbie Global Advisory Council, Mattel started sending Barbies by the bushel, including NASA’s Katherine Johnson Barbie, part of the “Inspiring Women” series that includes Amelia Earhart and Frida Kahlo. (“It really looks like her,” Cheryan said. “She has movable arms and her NASA badge.” And glasses. And a pretty wonderful dress.)
Mattel is still churning out beauts like the “Barbie Hairtastic” doll and vanity set, and there’s a “Fashionista” line with short skirts and hair for days. But even those dolls now come in different (read: realistic) body types and skin colors and wearing T-shirts that say things like “Girl Power.” (And hey, after they re-branded as a “platform for girl’s empowerment,” Barbie sales were up 24 percent.)
“We have to start early, and that’s what Barbie does,” Cheryan said. “She’s there with the four-year-olds.”
So they may want to hold off on “Brass Knuckle Barbie,” then? OK. Never mind.