Barbie Breaking Barriers: The link between representation, equality, and economics

by Emma Rogers

September 10, 2023

Along with the feminist movement, the labour force has evolved, with women striving for equal pay, equal opportunities, and equal representation. The recently released billion-dollar blockbuster movie featuring everyone’s favourite doll has sparked conversations about how far society has really come in terms of gender equality.

A History of Women in the Workforce

Over the past century, there have undoubtedly been significant advancements in women’s experience in the workforce. More women are working, and in a broader range of careers. Yet, a notable and persistent gender gap still exists.

The labour force participation rate is one indicator of this, as it measures the number of people who are either currently employed or seeking employment. For women in Australia, this figure has significantly increased over the last 50 years, rising from 44.4% in 1980 to the current rate of 61.2%. Nevertheless, a substantial disparity remains with men’s participation rate remaining stable around at 71.2%. Globally, the gap is even more pronounced; data shows the current female labour force participation rate is 47%, compared to men’s 72%.

Another significant discrepancy lies in the number of underemployed women, those who are seeking full-time work but are only able to secure a part-time position. Almost half of underemployed Australian women reported caring for children as the primary reason they are unable to work more hours. Up until 2010, there was a noticeable dip in the labour force participation rate for women in their early 20s for this reason.

Although the saturation of female employment has significantly increased in the last few decades, the most common jobs for women are still the same as they were in the 1950s. This includes secretaries, primary and middle school teachers, cashiers, and nurses. Despite this, men still hold most leadership positions within education, healthcare, and retail. Across all industries, women continue to be underrepresented in higher-level and leadership positions. Only 10% of the Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO, with a quarter of these only securing the role in the last 12 months.

The economic impact of a reduced gender gap

Many studies support the idea that bridging the gender gap would yield large positive impacts on the economy. For example, a mere 2% increase in the number of women in the workforce could boost Australia’s GDP by up to $11 billion. On a global scale, the cost of gender-based discrimination climbs to $6 trillion.

These effects arise from multiple factors, including increased tax revenue and consumer spending derived from a greater population of high-earning individuals, as well as greater output and productivity due to the growth in the labour market. The IMF reports that for countries with the highest gender gap, closing it would result in an average increase in GDP of 35%. While four-fifths of this effect stems from the increased number of workers, one-fifth is purely attributed to the boost to productivity and efficiency brought by greater gender diversification.

Barbie and women’s opportunities

A multi-national figurehead for female workers is embodied by a plastic, well-dressed doll. Over her 60-year lifetime, Barbie has racked up more than 200 careers on her resume, evolving along, and in response to the current labour climate. According to her creator, Ruth Handler, Barbie was created to inspire and encourage young girls to expand their aspirations according to her motto: “You can be anything”. However, many of Barbie’s jobs were highly ambitious roles given the time in which they were released. Some examples include:

Astronaut barbie was introduced in 1965, a few years before Apollo 11, man’s first voyage to the moon. However, it wasn’t until two decades later that women were allowed into the NASA training program.

Several years later in 1973, surgeon barbie was introduced. At the time, women made up less than 2% of all surgeons. Today, women account for 13% of surgeons in Australia, just over a 10% increase in 50 years.

A Presidential candidate was first released in 1992, with a new presidential candidate Barbie introduced almost every election year. This was one of Barbie’s most prominent leadership positions.

Naval Petty Officer, Marine Corps Sergeant, Firefighter: produced between 1990 and 1995. All these careers represent a typically male, protective role with significantly low female participation. Even today, women only make up 8.9% of all Marines.

An Australian Barbie was even created in 1993, where she ventured into the Outback and became a cattle rancher, also called a Jillaroo. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that women were legally recognised as farmers in Australia. Instead, they were labelled as “domestics, help mates or farmers’ wives”.

Barbie served as a trailblazer for women in these ground-breaking careers, paving the way for future generations. In a time when women in the real world couldn’t easily break into these professions, Barbie stood as one of the few or only representations of females in these fields.

The impact of representation

Barbie’s aspirations have reached millions in her lifetime, as evidenced by the fact that 92% of American girls aged 3 to 12 have owned a Barbie at some point in their life. However, with this comes the burden and privilege of great responsibility. While Barbie’s journey has not been without controversy, with critiques over her physical appearance perpetuating harmful beauty expectations of women, she has evolved into an emblem of female empowerment, challenging the traditional notion of femininity. She is no longer simply a blonde fashion model; her progressive portrayal has broadened to a more inclusive range – both in terms of careers and appearance.

Her versatility showcases the need for representation and positive role models in today’s society. Mattel has capitalised on this by producing a line of “based on a true story” Barbies, inspired by successful women in real life. Some of the many are:

Naomi Osaka – Professional Japanese Tennis Player, currently ranked No. 1 in the Women’s Tennis Association

Zendaya – highly successful actress with two Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. In 2022, she was named one of the top 100 most influential people by Times Magazine.

Bindi Irwin – Australian conservationist and television personality

Katherine Johnson – American mathematician for NASA whose calculations were a vital key to the success of the first U.S crewed flights. She and her other female co-workers were the inspiration for the best-selling non-fiction book, turned award-winning movie, “Hidden Figures”.

The importance of diversity

Barbie exists as many different women from diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, fostering a sense of unity and common ground. This inclusion allows all girls to picture themselves as Barbie, reaping the full benefits of what her career ambitions can bring to young girls. Undoubtedly, the promotion of gender equality cannot be limited to a specific group of women to achieve true equality and its many benefits.

The impact of diversity extends beyond personal empowerment, with significant impacts on society and the workplace. Studies into the impact of diversity on economic performance have indicated a significant positive relationship between the two. Boston Consulting Group and Harvard Business Review found that companies with a more diverse leadership and management board have on average 19% higher revenues and 9% higher EBIT margins. Additionally, a report by Hays Asia Diversity and Inclusion concluded that one of the top three benefits of diversity was greater innovation in a business.

The benefits are irrefutable, and many companies are taking steps towards this positive change. Women represent 19.4% of CEOs in Australia and made up 41.8% of new appointments to executive boards of ASX200 companies in 2021. However, 22.3% of boards have no female directors, compared to 0.6% with no men. While the history of working women carries a dual narrative of progress and persistent challenge, a lot more change is required for a truly equitable future.


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