I’m a Barbie girl, in a B2B tech PR world
Spring sprung, Oregon upset Kansas in the Midwest Regional NCAA basketball final, the Irish (and Irish-at-heart) drank all the beer their livers could handle, and – last but certainly not least – 31 days were dedicated to amazing, badass women everywhere during Women’s History Month. It was a jam-packed March, but that’s not all: a certain American icon celebrated her 58th birthday on March 9 – Barbie®.
Back when Barbie Millicent Roberts from Wisconsin was first invented, Ruth Handler (also co-founder of Mattel) designed her with one career in mind— a teenage fashion model. Barbie’s intention soon shifted to giving girls the idea that they could be whoever they wanted to be when they grew up. However, Barbie has become a symbol in recent years for what’s wrong with “girls’ toys.”
Dolls vs. LEGOs
How many times have you heard that girls should play with “more intelligent” toys like LEGO® over Barbie (or other) dolls? While the expectation is that playing with LEGOs better prepares girls for more scientific or technology focused careers, it also teaches them is that they should be ashamed for enjoying stereotypically feminine things (check out this article on valuing rather than devaluing “feminine” pursuits/ideas).
Girls, just like boys, should be encouraged to play with what they are interested in, even if (heaven forbid) it happens to be dolls or a kitchen set, rather than feeling that they are worth less for taking care of their pretend “family” while wearing the color pink.
By insisting girls play with LEGOs instead of, rather than in addition to, making pretend brownies in the kitchen, the plan to guide them to the ‘right’ path often backfires. In the end, we’ve taken things many girls love and made them “less” than what boys stereotypically love. It shouldn’t matter if girls want to play house or play with engineering kits–both should be celebrated as they learn varied new skills and concepts.
If looks could kill, we’d all be dead
This unconscious bias against people and things that are perceived as “girly” or “feminine” is something that follows women well into their careers, and is something I unhappily experience almost every day – even when it’s intended to be complimentary – in my role as an account executive for a B2B technology PR firm.
At a recent networking event I attended with my fellow female coworkers in Boston, we dabbled in small talk, tasty hamburger sliders and ice cold beers— and got a lot more raised eyebrows than we expected. As I began to talk about the type of work we do for our cybersecurity clients, many of the other attendees were confused as to why I wasn’t a balding man in his mid-50s hunched over my laptop pushing oversized glasses up my nose.
Being a young female and recent college graduate working in tech PR triggered the unconscious biases of people I was networking with, since my Bud Light, blonde hair and off-the-shoulder top didn’t match their vision of what a tech PR person would look like. I spent the rest of the evening convincing others that if they ever needed PR for security policy orchestration and automation that I was their “girl”, but it felt fake and quite honestly, I didn’t even believe what I was saying. As I sit down to write this blog after jumping off a two-hour brainstorm session about the ways policy-based automation can help fill the security skills gap, I know that I’m a competent woman who knows what she’s talking about. But unfortunately, regardless of the truth, that kind of biased environment creates a dangerous sense of not belonging that undermines women’s confidence and ability to succeed.
While the technology industry obviously still struggles with this unconscious bias, it isn’t the only field that needs improvement. This is a much larger societal issue than a simple programming error; it’s not a matter of simply rewriting an unconscious bias code. And as Women’s History Month passes, it’s important to reflect on what unconscious bias tells us about the struggles women still face not just in technology careers, but everywhere.
Today, with over 130 careers, four body types, seven skin tones, 24 hairstyles and 22 different eye colors, Barbie has evolved and transformed to find new, inspirational ways that impact the next generation of girls— but her evolution isn’t over. And while not all women and girls identify as a “Barbie girl”, it’s a shame our society undervalues those who do.