Maya Nilkant

Barbie Takes on STEM

Blog Post created by Maya Nilkant on Jun 6, 2017

By Hawthorne R. Ripley & Rebecca A. Horwitz


     A small label on the front of Mattel’s Barbie STEM kit box reads, “You Can Be Anything.” Toys have the power to influence how children perceive their potential and form goals, and STEM kits, specifically, could even inspire or encourage future career paths. For this reason, the new Mattel product raises questions about the progress made in the representation of women in STEM fields, and whether this toy is actually constructive in the hands of young girls. The classic blonde doll comes equipped with a lab coat and safety goggles, but her hair is loose and she's wearing a mini skirt and high heels. She also comes with ready‐made supplies to put together a motorized closet rack, jewelry holder, and a washing machine using “engineering,” and to design colorful dresses with “chromatography.” The question arises: is this truly a step forward, and is Mattel’s “professional women” initiative really sending a message of equality?

     At the Packer Collegiate Institute, a small private school in New York City, many girls in the community feel that women in STEM fields are underrepresented. We started the Women in STEM club earlier this year, with the objective of strategizing on how to tackle the unique challenges girls interested in STEM professions face. The Mattel STEM kit has sparked discussion in our club, and many members agree that this toy is not progress.

     As young women who have grown up interested in STEM, we want future generations of girls to be given the same sort of science kits as boys and believe that Mattel’s portrayal of the female scientist is both diminishing and discouraging. Some of our club members said that, on the positive side, Mattel’s Barbie design might attract little girls with interest in dolls to STEM fields, but most believed that blunt stereotyping discounted any possible positive value; the “STEM projects” in the kit are essentially household duties, expressing a 1950’s ideology of a woman’s full potential. It is unsettling that one of the most influential toy companies continues to cling to these ideals. To us, it seems like a strategy to reroute any female interest in technical subjects back into housework and fashion, sending a message of “stay in your lane” as opposed to “you can be anything.” Why does Mattel choose to perpetuate the narrative that girls are only interested in “girly” things? Being in the business of appealing to children, how can they so greatly underestimate the broad scope of what is fun for girls?

     It is important to acknowledge that Mattel’s attempt to integrate a STEM kit into their inventory of “girls’ toys” is indeed a step in the right direction. However, beyond this first step, the product quickly went off the rails. Mattel needs to do more than stereotype if it truly wants to inspire future‐generation female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

     Another company we see as having a more appropriate representation of STEM for young girls, without cutting out gendered marketing entirely, is GoldieBlox. Their products include aspects of problem solving and engineering, while still being marketed to young girls using animals and fairy tales. Or, you could buy your daughter the same chemistry set or Tinker Toys you buy your son.  However, wring off the STEM Barbie is not an option, as the toy will, whether we like it or not, have an enormous impact. According to Mattel, an estimated 3 Barbies are sold a second, which is about 95 million sold a year. Because of this prevalence, improving the toy is hugely important.

     Mattel needs to offer their large audience of potential STEM professional tools to pique their curiosity, instead of enforcing old stereotypes. Mattel should focus primarily on changing the experiments included to reflect modern standards of professional women. Members in our club suggested that including more realistic scientific tools would be helpful. In addition, many said replacing the simple readymade pieces with slightly more complex and varied parts would enhance the engineering aspect of the STEM toy. The small greenhouse that Barbie builds is also, to Mattel’s credit, worth keeping.

     Mattel’s promotional video accompanying the Barbie STEM kit shows few scenes of Barbie working in a lab or in an office, but does end with the image of her relaxing in a hammock, after a “hard day’s” work, which is telling of the environment in which Mattel seems to think women belong. Although relaxation is a goal for many working people, this is hardly an inspiring image of a successful STEM professional; certainly, Mattel can and must do better. As one member said, “We’ve come a long way, but I don’t think we should settle.”