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Making Dolls to Drive Social Change: The Business of Being Inclusive

For many, Barbie dolls are the antithesis of women's empowerment. The buxom, beautiful blonde doll created a model for millions of younger girls as to what constituted beauty and what girls should aspire to. The doll furthered the notion that success for women was based on looks, having a handsome husband, and a nice car and house in Malibu.

A Shift in Definitions of Success for Women

As times have changed, Barbie has sought to shift her image as well. Over the years, Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, has made efforts to move away from the doll’s vapid and very white image by introducing racially diverse dolls, dolls with different body types and even dolls with wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs. (As Forbes notes, the latest iteration of disabled Barbies comes over 20 years after Mattel's first botched attempt.)

In addition to making a suite of dolls that more closely resemble the diverse market for its toys, Barbie has also sought to create dolls that are more than just swimsuit models and debutantes. As Sarah Young points out in an article for the Independent: "Barbie has transformed a female astronaut into a doll to encourage more girls to explore careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)."

Making a Social Impact

It may be somewhat counterintuitive to think that a doll could drive social change, but that’s exactly what Mattel is hoping to do here. Mattel worked with the European Space Agency (ESA) to design the doll in the likeness of Samantha Cristoforetti, the agency’s on active female astronaut. The doll is part of Mattel's Dream Gap Project, an effort to address the factors that contribute to the educational and career disparities between boys and girls.

It would be naïve to see Mattel's Dream Gap Project as a purely altruistic initiative, though. Mattel is, after all, a for-profit company. Of course, Mattel has likely recognized that parents who buy toys for their children want their daughters to see themselves as having more to aspire to in life than a trim body, handsome husband and nice house. The introduction of this doll is designed to serve that potential demand.

Inclusion: A Business Imperative

Still, despite Mattel’s efforts, it may be hard for the company to shake the long-standing connotations of the Barbie brand. Nevertheless, it's interesting to see what this company is doing to take steps to appeal not only to a broader racial demographic but also to address a growing need for more bright minds—male and female—to fill STEM talent gaps.

Yes, inclusion is a business imperative. But, inclusive efforts can also hold the potential for social impact.

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