Entrepreneur Barbie doesn't need to wear pink to get the job done

Toy makers are taking steps to build toys that model business leaders for girls, but are they missing the point as they pick wardrobes and professions that perpetuate stereotypes?

Screenshot from Amazon.com
An image of the Barbie Entrepreneur doll.

As a business school professor and the mother of a young daughter, I am always on the lookout for toys that can inspire girls. When I learned about this year’s girl-oriented entrepreneurship toys, for a few moments I was excited.

There is Entrepreneur Barbie doll, dubbed the 2014 “career of the year” Barbie by Mattel. 

And for the tween set, Fashion Angels offers It's My Biz, a set of kits designed to help girls start businesses selling bead jewelry, cupcakes and manicures. 

My excitement was soon cut short. No doubt these toys are well-intentioned, but ironically, they perpetuate the same gender stereotypes that discourage many women from becoming entrepreneurs.

Let’s start with the Entrepreneur Barbie Doll

We aren’t told what her business is or what kind of education or work experience it took to get started. But we do know that she wears “a sophisticated dress in signature pink that features modern color blocking and a sleek silhouette,” according to the product description.

Also this Barbie has “luxe details, like a glam necklace, cool clutch and elegant hairstyle,” which are “smart, professional touches.” 

In other words, what it takes to become an entrepreneur is apparently wearing the right outfit. 

I’m guessing that would be news to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

“It’s My Biz” provides a similar message, with its implication that girls should be interested in businesses related to fashion (jewelry and T-shirts) and physical appearance (nail art).

A more subtle problem is the marketing of the kits, which highlights the idea of “aspiring SHE-E-Os.”  

Rather than suggesting that entrepreneurship is a natural career path for women, this wording has the opposite implication: like the antiquated “lady lawyer” and  "lady doctor", the qualifying “SHE” reinforces the idea that CEOs should be assumed male unless otherwise specified.

In the real world, women are underrepresented in entrepreneurship. 

They are less likely than men to be self-employed, and when they do start companies, they are less successful in raising capital. 

One study found that only 1 percent of companies that issued initial public offerings (IPOs) were headed by women. 

Another recent study found that less than 3 percent of companies receiving venture capital had a female CEO. Only 15 percent had any female executives at all. 

Other research shows that entrepreneurs are associated in the popular imagination with stereotypically masculine characteristics like competitiveness and assertiveness, and that entrepreneurship is portrayed in the press and even in academic materials as a career more appropriate for men than for women.

So I’m certainly in favor of toys that encourage girls to consider entrepreneurship as a career.

I admit that Barbie Entrepreneur is, well, better than most Barbies.  And “It’s My Biz” may actually teach some good lessons about how business works. 

Perhaps toymakers think they are giving consumers what they want. 

But really, is this the best we can do? 

The evidence suggests otherwise. 

Even Disney, the company that gave us the exasperating “Disney Princesses” phenomenon, has managed to create some good role models for girls with its “Doc McStuffins” cartoon on the Disney Jr. channel (a big hit with my five-year-old), which features a young African-American girl with a gift for fixing toys.

Doc’s mother is a physician and her father cooks dinner.  The toys (which can come to life) defy stereotypes too.  In one role-reversing episode, a brave princess rescues a knight in distress.  Doc McStuffins has been a ratings homerun with both boys and girls.

GoldieBlox, a company founded by a female Stanford engineering graduate, has had huge success with its line of building toys aimed at girls – but also, as it turns out, appealing to boys.

Surely there would be a market for entrepreneurship toys that don’t reinforce outdated clichés about girls.

In the meantime, how can parents encourage their daughters to become entrepreneurs?   

The key is to encourage girls to BE smart, not dress smart. One recent study examined entrepreneurship among a set of innovative young scientists and engineers (nearly all of whom have Ph.D.s), and found that in this elite group women and men were equally likely to start businesses. 

And education matters not just for starting businesses, but also for making them successful. Moreover, the effects of education on new venture performance are especially strong for women entrepreneurs. 

So the lesson for parents this Christmas: if you want to open entrepreneurial doors for your daughter, don’t buy her a Barbie.  Buy her a book.

Melissa E. GraebnerPh.D., is an associate professor of management at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches entrepreneurship and strategy. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.

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