“And why should we believe Engineering Barbie?” He spit the words across the table as I concluded my presentation, recommending to me the use of a more expensive metal to manufacture a critical component in my product design. His remark solicited snickers from the room. Members of my team and individuals I did not know laughed at my appearance. Perhaps with my light pink shirt, nude high heels and fuchsia calculator, I resembled the iconic plastic doll, a toy that I grew up playing with and loving. I smiled. To me, Barbie is a doctor and a dancer, a princess and a president, an astronaut and an athlete, not an insult.
Earlier this month, Mattel announced a new line of “science, exploration and research” Barbies in partnership with National Geographic. For the first time since her debut almost 60 years ago, Barbie will be exploring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields such as astrophysics and marine biology. Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager of the Barbie brand, promoted the partnership and said, “Barbie allows girls to try on new roles through storytelling by showing them they can be anything.”
Sadly, this announcement was met with criticism. Sensationalized research has claimed that Barbie negatively impacts young girls’ career aspirations, while anecdotes held the doll responsible for body dysmorphia in young women. However, such so-called research does not hold up under scientific scrutiny, as both studies relied heavily on small and unrepresentative sample sizes. Instead, these “it feels right, so it must be right” studies highlight a pervasive and often unconscious bias in our society. Barbie is not being taken seriously because of her appearance, an experience which many female engineers like myself are sadly too familiar with.
Dr. Stephanie Johnson, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and an expert in the “beauty is beastly” effect, explained why women struggle to find gainful employment in a traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering. “An attractive woman interviewing for a masculine job will have some very strong inferences like, perhaps, she is too feminine to do the job,” said Johnson. “These thoughts are so strong, in fact, that we found the interviewer often cannot even pay attention to what she [the candidate] is saying.”
This bias is not isolated to potential employers, as full-stack engineer Isis Wenger discovered when the internet took issue with her image being used to recruit software engineers as she did not “look like an actual engineer.” Commenters who wrote what they seemed to think were clever eviscerations of Wenger and her employer were met by hundreds of female engineers who responded to this sexism with the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer. In a society where female engineers are judged on their looks instead of what they have achieved, Barbie may be the best toy to prepare young girls to be engineers.
It’s a cliché in engineering to write in a college admissions essay about growing up and playing with Legos. However, as I stood in front of my colleagues snickering at the moniker “Engineering Barbie,” I realized that I had never told anyone in my field about my adventures with Barbie. It is not because my playtime with Barbie is less relevant to who I am as an engineer than the time I spent constructing with Legos, but because I knew it would likely be considered irrelevant by many of my peers. Moments later, another realization hit me — I should not have to curate my appearance, my hobbies or my childhood interests to “look like an engineer” to my peers, because I am an engineer.
“I love Barbie,” I said in reply to the comment. The room fell silent. “I used to make her different parachutes and launch her off the back of my friend’s couch to test which one worked the best.” I paused, reaching down for my maroon dry erase marker, “If you all are unsure about my conclusion, let’s walk through my calculations more explicitly.”