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Happy Labor Day! What Can Barbie Teach Us About Women in the Workforce?

I’ve been saving this post for today, specifically because today is Labor Day! As many of us know, Barbie (the movie) was the top film of the summer, grossing at almost $600 million, and Barbie pink was definitely the color of summer 2023. While the movie was a huge box office success, the Barbie doll and the brand itself has evolved to reflect the changing roles and participation of women in the labor market.

A recent podcast from Planet Money featured Barb Flowers, a retired economic education coordinator at the Federal Reserve of St. Louis. She was responsible for creating economic curricula for educators, and one of her lesson plans featured Barbie as a way to explain women’s participation in the labor force.

Barb Flowers’ lesson plan is an interesting introduction to labor economics and aims to acquaint students like me on key terms such as the “labor force” and “labor force participation rate.” By organizing Barbie’s different professions in order of when a particular type of doll was introduced, Flowers tried to shed light on the historical context of these periods as well as important events that kids could relate to at that time.

But what was also interesting was that, when a particular doll was introduced, Barbie’s professions were sometimes a leading indicator of what was happening with women in the workforce. To elaborate, the astronaut doll was first introduced in 1965, but Sally Ride, the first woman in space did not go to space until June 18, 1983.

Doctor Barbie was introduced in 1973, during a time when only 7 percent of medical doctors are women. After a lawsuit was filed by the Women’s Equity Action League, the number of women in the medical profession has increased steadily to one third of all medical doctors. Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, even created tribute dolls to women instrumental in fighting COVID-19, such as vaccinologist Prof. Sarah Gilbert, who was a pivotal figure in creating the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as Brooklyn nurse Amy Sullivan, who treated the first COVID-19 patient.

For some who are not big fans, Barbie may seem to be shallow and even vapid. But over time, we see Barbie reflecting an important part of the labor force…women. Even Ken who thinks he’s “Kenough” thinks Barbie is cool.


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