What can Barbie tell us about women and work? ⋆
A Barbie doll with a 2012 presidential theme is part of the charity raffle during the 2015 National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City hotel July 31, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
“Because Barbie can be anything; women can be anything,” according to the narrator of the new “Barbie” movie directed by Greta Gerwig that broke the box office record for 2023, grossing more than $70 million on opening day.
In the film that debuted Friday, “Barbieland” is run and sustained by Barbies performing the various roles and careers needed to keep their matriarchal society going: Doctor, lawyer, president, journalist and mermaid.
Meanwhile, in the real world, women are returning in droves to various careers around the country following mass unemployment during the early COVID-19 pandemic, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Employment rates for women aged 25 to 54 average 75.3% nationally, according to Census Bureau’s current Population Survey for 2022, the agency’s most recent data. These rates are the highest the bureau has ever seen for women since 1948 when the survey began reporting numbers.
Michigan’s numbers are around average, with 73.3% of women employed, but falling behind their male counterparts by about 9%.
Although Barbie takes on any career field she wants, state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) — a former Hot Wheels designer at Mattel, the company that also makes Barbie — said the iconic doll doesn’t fully illustrate the very real barriers women can face in the workforce.
State Sen. Mallory McMorrow at Lansing Community College, June 4, 2019 | Susan J. Demas
“It was always this fine line of, ‘Barbie is everything.’ She’s an astronaut and she’s president. She works at McDonald’s and she can fly a plane,” McMorrow said. “But there is also the reality of: Barbie never really had to deal in reality. That was always some of the appeal; Barbie’s got Barbie’s Dreamhouse and Barbie’s RV and Corvette and rubs up against the reality of the real world.”
During the early days of the pandemic, women had to deal with the reality of layoffs, a shift to remote work and struggles with childcare, leading experts to warn of a “she-cession.” From 2020 to 2021, women nationally lost more than 30 years of labor force gains, with mothers of young children losing their jobs at three times the rate of fathers in 2020.
Although Michigan has made gains in women in the workforce since then, those women have not necessarily seen that “gain” in their paychecks.
Michigan ranks third worst in wage discrepancies in states between men and women in the workforce, with women making 76.2% of the median usual weekly earnings of their male counterparts, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2021. The percentage plummeted down to 69.4% in 1999 and has been as high as 82.4% in 2017, according to the Bureau.
Women in Michigan’s workforce gravitate the most towards health care, social assistance and education-related jobs at 70 to 80%, while composing only about 28% of manufacturing jobs and 15% of construction jobs, according to 2019 data from the state. About 99% of detailed industry groups in Michigan had an average pay gap that favored men in 2019, with 16 industries marking a 50% or more pay gap where men out-earned women.
In many fields, but notably in trades and manufacturing, male coworkers don’t always treat their female coworkers, often the only woman in the room, as equals, Caryn Heldt, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University said.
“It’s really important to have more women pursue engineering,” Heldt said. “Engineering in general is not known to have a lot of women educators or to have a lot of women in the field. But we also know that the more diverse your team is, typically the more creative your solutions are, and diverse teams usually save companies more money.”
‘This could set women back generations’
Heldt helps lead Women in the Academy (WIA) at Michigan Technological University, which works to support and equip female faculty members to be able to continue to educate the next generation of women. She says the academy provides a listening ear for those educators who may be the only woman in their department and they advocate for things that increase female participation and success in the workplace like family leave and childcare options.
“The low amount of employment for women during the pandemic was because daycare in households greatly fell on the women and one of the ways that we can actually have more equality in the workforce is to have more equality in our families,” Heldt said.
With all the mental and emotional labor women are often expected to expend at home for their families, Heldt said it can be a challenge to give 100% at work. And if women can’t give 100% at work or for a moment they don’t keep up physically, in manufacturing for example, some men can leap at the opportunity to treat their female counterparts as less competent.
It’s important to have role models who are similar to you, according to Heldt, but meaningful resources like the ones advocated for by WIA are an important tool to ensure equity in different careers.
“I think I’ve taken more notice [of Barbie] as I’ve gotten older, as I’ve had children,” Heldt said. “As a mother I’ve been very happy to see all of the different careers: The astronaut, the scientist, all the different things that she has done, I think has been a very good outreach to little girls and especially girls that don’t have those role models. … My daughter sees me as an engineer and a scientist, but not everybody has that opportunity.”
According to Mattel, Barbie has more than 200 careers under her sparkly pink belt and has walked in the shoes (not just high heels) of dozens of real-world women, with dolls being made in the image of women like Maya Angelou, Abby Wambach, Katherine Johnson, Sally Ride, Eleanor Roosevelt and many more.
Barbie is a computer engineer, ballerina, Air Force pilot, artist, news anchor, teacher, microbiologist, grocery store worker, firefighter and more. She went to the moon before Neil Armstrong, served in multiple branches of the U.S. military and has run for president six times.
Looking at Barbie’s varied jobs, trade careers don’t have much representation, and labor educator and conference coordinator for The Center for Labor and Community Studies at University of Michigan Dearborn Ghana Goodwin-Dye has noticed.
“I want to see a Barbie that has a tool belt. They have doctors; they have vets,” Goodwin-Dye said.
While Barbie has been a paramedic and a builder, she does not appear to have returned to trade school for other roles.
Women have opportunities in skilled trades in Michigan, as many skilled workers are retiring, but stigma and now the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that limits affirmative action in college admissions will continue to hold women back, Goodwin-Dye said.
“Some women have broken that glass ceiling, but we still have a long way to go,” Goodwin-Dye said.
Before the “Barbie” movie opened, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week launched a social media campaign of “Governor Barbie” (though not an official Mattel version) who signs bills, holds a press conference and tools around Lansing in her pink Corvette.
“Together, we work to create spaces and structures that empower women to show up as they are and allow them [to] lead from the front,” Whitmer tweeted.
When I first ran for governor, someone said to me: “Just promise me you’ll show up as you are. Don’t dim yourself because of what other people think and feel, be who *you* are.”
I’ve carried that message with me through all the ups and downs. pic.twitter.com/3jFq0fHqzx
— Governor Gretchen Whitmer (@GovWhitmer) July 21, 2023
For Whitmer, Barbie is about sisterhood and creating opportunity for everyone.
“Barbie’s been an icon and a reminder that it’s so important to support one another and create systems that allow more people to achieve their own dreams, no matter who they are, what they look like, or what they wear,” she said. “Let’s keep fighting for that dream world.”
Seeing more women in positions of leadership will likely help change Michigan’s workforce for the better for women in both employment opportunities and wage equality, McMorrow said.
The 2018 election marked a surge in women running for elected offices across the country, with Michigan electing women to top executive offices: Whitmer as governor, Dana Nessel as attorney general and Jocelyn Benson as secretary of state. All three easily won reelection last year.
“We are now seeing more women in elected office in Michigan and that’s something that you’ve seen in other states,” McMorrow said. “Where there are more women in power, there’s more policy that benefits women. I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface of that.”
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authored by Anna Liz Nichols
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