Can we encourage more girls into STEM through Barbie?

At the age of 11, girls are interested in STEM subjects, but by the age of 16 this interest has sharply dropped; is it stereotype, lack of role models or just no positive influence from authority causing this drop?

The Robotics Engineer Barbie could start to break down stereotypes and allow younger girls to see themselves in STEM subjects.
The robotics engineer Barbie could start to break down stereotypes and allow younger girls to see themselves in STEM subjects.

Mattel Inc – the US company responsible for Barbie – has released a new STEM themed doll, the ‘Robotics Engineer Barbie’, with the hopes that it might alter some of those initial STEM stereotypes and encourage young girls to forge careers in the sector.

This is not the first time Barbie has found a career path in STEM – since 1959, the iconic doll has held roles including astronaut, scientist, video game developer and computer engineer.

Including a more diverse workforce in STEM, manufacturing and engineering careers remains vital to the progress of not just these, but all industries. Gender diversity is crucial and the disparity within work forces in these sectors is, as heard in The Manufacturer’s Women & Diversity in Manufacturing Summit, painfully apparent.

Encouraging young girls into technical roles

With only 24 percent of UK STEM jobs held by women according to WISE, does Britain need more female role models in order to encourage more young girls into the sector?

Founder of STEM Women, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, spoke to The Manufacturer about encouraging girls into the sector, she said: “When you ask children to draw a scientist at a young age, they will draw both men and women.

“Then after a certain age they tend to only draw older, white men, Einstein types and this is because of cultural conditioning.”

Professional female engineers in UK by %
Professional female engineers in UK by %.

She continued to explain that girls interest drops at age 16 because they aren’t “able to picture themselves as a scientist”, due to this cultural conditioning. The idea of them in these subjects “gets beaten away.”

She added: “The question is, how do you challenge those things?”

Could the robotics Barbie engineer start to break down stereotypes and allow younger girls to see themselves in science, engineering and technical roles?

Samarasinghe said: “The robotics Barbie could help, but I think that the idea of STEM subjects is being shown off as very trendy at the moment, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.”

She asked: “Is it just a PR opportunity or are Mattel actually doing a worthwhile thing?”

Mattel Inc and Egmont Publishing

Little Miss Inventor was announced as a new character by Egmont Publishing earlier this year.
Little Miss Inventor was announced as a new character by Egmont Publishing earlier this year.

Mattel Inc previously had a female CEO – the company’s second ever woman – Margo Georgiadis who was replaced earlier this year by Ynon Kreiz. The company, at present only has one woman – out of seven – on their board of directors.

It can’t be ignored that it is hypocritical for Barbie to confront stereotypes when the internal structure of the company doesn’t challenge the status quo, even though more diverse dolls is a positive initiative.

The Little Miss brand created by Egmont Publishing (one-third of their board of directors are women) revealed a new character earlier this year too, Little Miss Inventor, could this encourage young girls into engineering or manufacturing roles?

Certainly, one of the key aspects of getting girls into STEM subjects is seeing positive roles models in the industry, which challenge their conditioned stereotypes. STEM themed Barbies and Little Miss Inventor could help to question gender roles, and make girls more open to the idea of a career in the sector.

Samarasinghe explained it is about allowing girls to have the option of a future in the sector: “It is not saying that if a girl wants to be a designer they shouldn’t and they should go into science instead, it is allowing them to have the option to go into science, that sometimes they don’t think they have.”

Supporting women in and through STEM

Samarasinghe also spoke of how the “biggest problem” was actually keeping women in STEM, she said: “Women get into STEM okay, you go through a lot of studying and interviews that you were already biased against and you have a fair amount of battle scars getting into the profession, but then women see no progression, so it is how to keep them in STEM.”

With only 24 percent of UK STEM jobs held by women according to WISE, does Britain need more female role models in order to encourage more young girls into the sector?
Only 24 percent of UK STEM jobs are held by women according to WISE, does Britain need more female role models in the sector? Image courtesy Depositphotos.

This view resonated with CEO of Women’s Engineering Society (WES), Kirsten Bodley, who The Manufacturer recently spoke to

WES’s most recent campaign focused on the female ‘transferrers and returners’ into engineering, the women returning to the industry, as only 11% of the entire UK engineering workforce are women.

Bodley said the sector needs more “mentoring” and “leadership” in order to support women returning to their STEM careers.

The UK needs to make careers in STEM more accessible for women, by encouraging young girls and keeping women in the field in order to create the positive role models it needs. To do this however, the industry needs to improve leadership and support for women in the industry, who feel they are not able to work or return to STEM job roles because of bias, stereotype and lack of progression.

Samarasinghe said on the idea of getting girls into STEM and keeping women in the sector: “It is both aspects, it is where the pipeline is leakiest.”

She concluded: “What is the point of getting girls into STEM if they are just going to leave.”