Barbie is hardly a stranger to the wonderous world of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. Over the past six decades, she has embarked upon pioneering careers as a computer engineer, a scientist, a video game developer and an astronaut. Her newest professional role shows girls that they can smash barriers in an a field where women, and particularly women of color, are underrepresented: robotics and engineering.
The Barbie Career of the Year Robotics Engineer doll, created in partnership with the educational outreach organization Black Girls Code, comes equipped with a doll-sized laptop, a robot and lab safety glasses. Available in four different versions, she joins a lineup of more than 200 career-specific Barbies created since her debut in 1959. In addition to calling attention to a critical need for more female scientists and computer coders and civil engineers, the ultimate aim of Barbie Robotics Engineer is to pique interest in STEM careers from a young age and inspire and unlock the limitless potential in every girl.
Today, only 10.8 percent of civil engineers are women, and just 20 percent of all software coders are women. Meanwhile, African-American representation in the U.S. tech industry continues to average only 2.5 percent, and African-American women comprise just one quarter of that percentage. Barbie is not only encouraging girls to explore STEM through imaginative play with the new Robotics Engineer Barbie, but also to venture into robotics and coding through its support of Black Girls Code robotics workshops. The non-profit launched in 2011 with the goal of providing African-American girls with the experience, knowledge and skills to occupy some of the 1.4 million computing jobs expected to be available in the U.S. by 2020.
To help make STEM education more accessible and to empower girls with the foundational tools they need to learn to code, the Barbie brand provided a donation of support to Black Girls Code that will be used to fund scholarships for girls to continue their interest in STEM fields. The Barbie brand also gifted the organization with Robotics Engineer Barbie dolls to be given to girls attending their robotics workshops throughout the year.
“We are proud to launch Robotics Engineer Barbie to expose girls to this underrepresented career field and show them that they can be anything,” said Lisa McKnight, General Manager and Senior Vice President, Barbie. “By playing with Robotics Engineer Barbie both on and offline, we hope to inspire girls’ interest in STEM which may lead to a future career in engineering.”
Kimberly Bryant, Founder and Executive Director of Black Girls Code, takes that mission seriously. “To be able to have girls from different backgrounds and cultures connect with Robotics Engineer Barbie in our workshops—and to dream big in the world of STEM with Barbie helping to lead the way—is very special,” said Bryant. “I’m really excited about this opportunity to both work with the Barbie team on the Barbie Career of the Year launch, and to together ensure that our Black Girls Code participants are able to have one of their own to inspire them beyond what we’re doing in our workshops to promote STEM.”
We recently chatted with Bryant to discuss Black Girls Code’s partnership with Barbie, and what that alliance means for girls everywhere. Check out our conversation with the veteran electrical engineer and social impact entrepreneur below.
Q: How are Mattel and the Barbie brand working together with Black Girls Code to interest young girls in STEM?
A: We’re working with Barbie and Mattel around the launch of the Robotics Engineer Barbie doll, and Mattel has provided a grant of support for Black Girls Code that is part of our new partnership. Mattel has also gifted us Robotics Engineer Barbie dolls that we’ll be giving to our girls in all of the different robotics courses, workshops and camps that we have for the rest of this year.
Q: What excites you most about this new partnership between Mattel and Black Girls Code?
A: There have been several different career engineer dolls from Barbie, and this one in particular is the fifth in the STEM field. It has four different cultures that are represented through Robotics Engineer Barbie. The doll allows us to provide an actual image to various cultures where they can see themselves represented in this career doll as a robotics engineer. I think that’s very special in that it allows girls to not have to make as big of a leap, thanks to the cultural elements represented in the toy that they’re playing with. They can now see someone that looks like they do in the STEM field. It’s very important for girls to be able to see themselves in these roles in which they’re not traditionally represented.
Q: Why is this the right time for a toy like this? What challenges within the greater educational landscape do Robotics Engineer Barbie—and Black Girls Code—help to address?
A: This is the right time because we’re in the midst of the next industrial or tech revolution. There is nothing that we do or experience at this point that I can imagine not having tech involved in. When we look at robotics and where the workforce of the future is going, robotics will be a huge part of this next revolution. It’s important that we have women and girls behind the technological innovations of the future. It’s critical that we know how to build and code these new technologies.
Robotics Engineer Barbie helps to prepare our girls for that future. It gives them something to aspire to—new empowering stories to tell—and readies them in many ways to step into the future and become robotics engineers. And our Barbie brand-supported Black Girls Code workshops equip them with the skills necessary to become the next generation of tech creators.
Q: What does aligning with Black Girls Code—and further embracing robotics coding and engineering as a career path—say about Barbie, and about how Mattel’s Barbie brand is evolving overall?
A: For me, I am a woman who grew up with Barbie. I literally still have Barbie dolls that are in their packages so nothing happens to them. When I was growing up, Barbie was a part of my world, and she was part of the image of what a woman was and what she could be. Those are all the things that Barbie was and is to me, so I am very excited to see the Barbie brand being open to further creating the vision of the woman of the future, the woman of the 21st century.
Who is she? What does she do? What does she look like? What are her interests? What are her capabilities? Mattel is moving to create that vision in the Barbie brand products that they bring into the market, and it’s also engaging with organizations like Black Girls Code and Tynker Coding For Kids to create a more in-depth tool, so Barbie goes beyond just a play doll. She also actually becomes a tool for learning.
I’m happy to see Mattel doing this to support a vision for what the world will be like in the future. It doesn’t look like what the world looked like in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was growing up. It looks very different now. To see Mattel being open to changing their designs and being open to this diversity we’re moving into is something I’m very excited about.
Q: How will this new Barbie doll inspire kids to dream big and open their hearts and minds to STEM opportunities?
A: The possibilities are endless today in terms of girls’ imaginations and what they can become. They now have a representation of that with Robotics Engineer Barbie, a toy that they’re playing with and engaging with on a very personal basis.
This doll allows them to dream of a career that they may not necessarily see around them day to day.
It shows them that it is absolutely an opportunity to move into roles in not just robotics but other areas of science, technology, engineering and math as well. Robotics Engineer Barbie is the image of what they can be.
Q: What do you want kids to see, think and feel when they take part in Black Girls Code robotics workshops?
A: We want the girls to feel powerful. We want them to feel empowered. We want them to feel that their options are limitless. We don’t want them to see any barriers—just what they can do, be or become. That is the core of this Barbie partnership for us. It is to drive this message home in a really tangible way to make sure that girls understand they have all of the tools around them to become the innovation leaders of tomorrow.
Q: What specific STEM skills will participating girls explore and master through the Black Girls Code robotics workshops? And how will the Robotics Engineer Barbie dolls be integrated into the workshops?
A: We will be giving the girls who take our robotics workshops, starting with our Los Angeles locations, a Robotics Engineer Barbie. They will take the doll home at the end of the day. And we’re also very interested at looking at how we can utilize some of the Tynker curriculum to engage with much younger girls in our workshops throughout the rest of the year.
Our robotics workshops are a bit of a mixture in terms of skills acquisition. The girls in those classes are both building robots and coding. You not only have to build a robot— and actually put it together—you also have to get into the back-end code to create the movements. Our workshops cover many other aspects of technology, from video game design, to web design, to mobile app development, to artificial intelligence and much more.
Q: What does teaming up with Mattel and the Barbie brand mean for Black Girls Code?
A: Personally, it means everything to me because I’m a big Barbie fan going way back. I really love the brand, and it meant a lot for me in my formative years. So for me to be able to merge the empowering Barbie brand with my passion for tech now—and to help engage girls in STEM and as leaders in technology—it’s absolutely a full-circle moment for me.
For Black Girls Code to start out as a small, grassroots organization with the dream of giving girls a voice and to blaze new avenues for them—and to be able to partner with companies like Mattel and the iconic, trailblazing Barbie brand—it means a lot. It means that our message was heard. Our work was seen. And we’re moving forward to empower the girls of the future.