Hey Barbie, you go girl!

Coincidence or cosmic convergence? Just as Barbie announces her campaign for the presidency, pollsters release information on what motivates young girls to become leaders and what motivates young men to stay home. Mix the three together in a recipe for women's leadership, and the Oval Office looks like icing on the cake.

Last month Mattel released tens of thousands of "Barbie for President" dolls, all looking to move from that Dream House to the White House.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the hairdresser. Life-size women gave this Barbie a subtly subversive agenda: Get little girls to believe they can become women with power.

Barbie for President is a radical messenger in mainstream packaging. This, after all, is the doll with the impossibly elevated instep, the blonder than blond tresses, elongated neck, and pin-size waist who, just a few years ago, complained that math was too tough.

So why should we trust the symbol of every feminist's politically incorrect nightmare with the empowerment of our girls? Because six- to eight-year-old girls in the United States have an average of eight Barbie dolls, that's why. And every good organizer knows you can't move people - even very little people - unless you start where they are, not where you want them to be.

This Barbie sports nifty innovations - like more natural hair. But it was Marie Wilson who promoted the idea of making Barbie's brain anatomically correct. Ms. Wilson, who heads an effort to break down the barriers to women's leadership called the White House Project, believes in the power of popular culture to make permanent change.

"Little girls are ready to go out and meet the world," says Ms. Wilson, "and we have to make it normal for them to believe they can be powerful and in charge."

Mattel listened to Wilson's plea - Barbie for President comes complete with a "Girls' Action Agenda," and a "Girls' Bill of Rights." Still, altering Barbie's packaging is the easy part. It promises to be much harder to change the attitudes and motivation of young women.

Lake Perry Snell & Associates, in a study for the White House Project Education Fund, found that of young people from all ethnic and class backgrounds surveyed, 1 in 10 expressed a strong interest in running for political office. Many young adults - particularly women who are African-American, Latina, or lacking college degrees - feel left out of public leadership roles.

These young women don't see themselves in the political mirror. And they don't think politics makes much of a difference in accomplishing their goals. But the Lake study also shows that parents, adult role models, and educators are key players in the leadership lives of young women.

The data also show that parents who vote have daughters who believe voting is important. Schools and after-school organizations that provide leadership and community-involvement opportunities are fertilizing the seeds of adult leadership.

And the simple act, by mentors, parents, and teachers, of encouraging young girls to step forward, take the lead, take a risk and go where they haven't gone before may be the most powerful motivator of all.

All well and good, but what about that other barrier to women's advancement - the old-boys' network? Well, it seems that young men are perfectly willing to forgo leadership at work for partnership at home.

Just recently, the Radcliffe Public Policy Center released a study showing that only 27 percent of 21- to 29-year-old men said it was very important to them to have jobs with prestige and status. The vast majority of men surveyed say they're willing to consider new definitions of success.

"Men have transformed their value system by putting family over job and career," explains Leslie Cintron, the study's project manager. That could free up women to take on the best assignments at home and at work.

It all comes together: President Barbie gets some welcome help with that domestic agenda, and boys and girls get new hope for life without gender-based limits.

*Robin Gerber, a senior fellow at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, teaches courses on women and politics.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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