Barbie Provokes Equality (By Accident)

Teen Talk Barbie 1991, Attributed to Freddycat1
Teen Talk Barbie 1991.  Courtesy of Freddycat1.

It’s important in the modern workplace to know that there used to be a pervasive stereotype that women were bad at math.  It’s relevant to all of us trying to advance math in human resources.  We have the dual obstacle of getting good math across to clients, while also getting past unfair judgments directed at women who have perfectly good numbers in their hands.

This is a brief inter-generational memo which will be perceived differently depending on when you were born.  In 1992, Mattel produced the toy Teen Talk Barbie.  Amongst the 270 possible phrases the dolls would utter, 1.5% of dolls would say the phrase “Math class is tough.”

The doll was decried by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for discouraging women from studying math and science.  It was also referenced when the American Association of University Women criticized the relatively poor education that women were getting in math.  Mattel apologized for the mistake and announced that new dolls would not utter the phrase, and anyone who owned such a doll would be offered an exchange.

I don’t know the full history of women in math, but I do know enough to assert that Teen Talk Barbie was a critical incident.  Mattel did us all a favor by screwing up in exactly the right way, obliging many people to snap out of it, encouraging more women to become great at math, and doubling our talent pool of qualified applicants for math-intensive positions.

What fascinates me the most about this incident, is that people born after 1980 show no outward assumptions that women are bad at math.  For those of us who grew up with this assumption, we were repeatedly corrected that the stereotype was wrong, often by living-out an experience where women excelled.  The younger half of the workforce appears to be advancing their careers in blissful ignorance of this archaic stereotype.

The historic stereotype is important within human resources.  Human resources has historically been bad at math and is also a field with a large representation of women.  Quantitative work is becoming increasingly important within human resources, and human resources is obliged to influence business peers who take math very seriously.  As human resources becomes more sophisticated and makes its way to the big-kids table of decision makers, women who are good at math will speak their minds… as did Teen Talk Barbie.  Shortly after the debacle, the Barbie Liberation Organization swapped voice boxes between the Barbies and talking G.I. Joe action figures.  The liberated Barbies had access to the phrases “Eat lead, Cobra!” and “Vengeance is mine!”

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