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When British deaf actor Rose Ayling-Ellis was a little girl, she used to draw hearing aids on to her Barbie dolls to “make them look like me”.
In August, Rose unveiled a Barbie with a behind-the-ear hearing aid. “It is so important for children to be able to see themselves represented in the toys they play with”, she said.
I agree with Rose, and also know it is extremely important for girls to see real role models like her in all spheres of life—from actors to world leaders—who prove that there are no limits to fulfilling your potential.
As the OECD notes, gender equality and empowering girls are not just human rights and ways to ensure that no-one is left behind: they are also an important driver of economic growth.
On this, the 10th anniversary of the International Day of the Girl, which seeks to empower girls everywhere and address the challenges they face, it is crucial that young girls see themselves represented in the world around them to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal of gender equality.
As the OECD notes, gender equality and empowering girls are not just human rights and ways to ensure that no-one is left behind: they are also an important driver of economic growth that can help lift families out of poverty.
Play can help close gender gaps
It will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum. “Political empowerment” is the greatest gap to close: to date, only 22% of it has been closed, compared with 94% for “educational attainment”.
The OECD average for women in parliament is just under a third (32%), which means women are not being fairly represented in policymaking in OECD countries.
If you can see it, you can be it. I have seen the power of this first-hand: Samantha Cristoforetti became the first European woman to command the International Space Station this year...and she has now inspired my own daughter to want to become an astronaut.
But, as the World Economic Forum notes: “More women in political leadership tends to create a powerful role model effect, as well as decisions that represent broader parts of the population”.
I’m proud that this year marks 30 years since Barbie first ran for United States President, back in 1992. Seeing dolls that represent leaders in male-dominated roles can help girls imagine future versions of themselves and act these out through play.
If you can see it, you can be it.
I have seen the power of this first-hand. Samantha Cristoforetti became the first European woman to command the International Space Station this year. We honoured her with a Barbie in her likeness, which she took into space, and she has now inspired my own daughter to want to become an astronaut. Barbie herself was an astronaut four years before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.
Read more: Stereotyping and sexism at school: the pervasive nature of these issues and how they perpetuate gender inequality by Helen Connolly SA Commissioner for Children and Young People, Government of South Australia
Encouraging more girls into STEM careers
Greater representation and the role of play and inclusive toys are only part of the gender equality puzzle. There are other barriers that stop girls breaking through glass ceilings, including their confidence.
And nowhere is this truer than in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) roles. The latest OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results show that while girls aged 15 are scoring slightly lower than boys in maths, they score equally in science subjects.
Girls as young as five develop self-limiting beliefs and think they’re not as clever as boys. It is what is known as the Dream Gap.
The STEM gender gap starts to open up in higher education. In OECD countries, fewer than one-in-three engineering graduates and fewer than one-in-five computer science graduates are women.
Among graduates with science degrees, 71% of men work as professionals in physics, mathematics and engineering but only 43% of women do; only 13.7% of the inventors who filed patents are women.
Girls as young as five develop self-limiting beliefs and think they’re not as clever as boys. It is what is known as the Dream Gap—and something Mattel is committed to helping close, notably through the Barbie Dream Gap Project, which supports activist organisations empowering girls around the world.
For the past five years, Barbie has also honoured STEM women role models through our Inspiring Women series. These include primatologist Jane Goodall, vaccine developer Dame Professor Sarah Gilbert, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and, through our partnership with the European Space Agency, Samantha Cristoforetti.
Our partnership with National Geographic has also seen Barbie add astrophysicist and polar marine biologist to her CV. Over on YouTube, she is also a popular vlogger with 11 million followers. In this way, we strive to help girls overcome confidence issues, including the “sorry reflex”.
History of empowering girls
Barbie has actually had more than 250 different careers since she was first presented at the American International Toy Fair in 1959.
Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie and one of the founders of Mattel at a time when it was uncommon for women to manage companies, said: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be”.
Most crucially for me, today she is helping to inspire all girls to achieve their dreams. As the ultimate diverse doll with six different body shapes and 22 skin colours, Barbie has a prosthetic leg, uses a wheelchair and now, with the Rose doll, wears a hearing aid.
Ruth Handler struggled to have her idea taken seriously at first, but through her initial confidence in her creation and belief in herself she persisted. Now, through our collaborations with truly inspiring women, we are helping to instil some of that confidence in a new generation of girls so they can be the role models of tomorrow.