March 04, 2010

The Evolution of Working Women: Lessons from Barbie

Barbie Careers

by Michele Johansen

Ever since Barbie hit the scene in 1959, the doll has been busy. Besides inciting controversy because of her figure and making bubble-headed comments like the one about math being hard, Barbie has also held more than 100 jobs. She has been everything from a teacher to a McDonald's cashier to a veterinarian. And she has done each job with a smile on her face and stylish attire.

This year, Barbie will try her luck as a news anchor and a computer software engineer. Barbie has come a long way since her first job as a nurse. Through the years she has shown, though not always accurately, the evolution of women in the workplace. Take a look!

Registered Nurse Barbie
Registered Nurse Barbie, 1961

One of the first careers that Barbie tried her hand at was nursing. In 1961, nursing was a profession dominated by females, due in part to the fact that it was considered an appropriate job for a woman by society. While women still heavily outnumber men in this field, attitudes towards nursing have shifted and it has become a well-respected career choice. The only issue with 1961 Barbie? The box has a thought bubble emanating from Barbie's head that says, "Get new shoes and call me in the morning!" Was that really necessary?

Flight Attendant Barbie
Flight Attendant/Stewardess Barbie, 1961

Barbie served as a flight attendant/stewardess for American Airlines and Pan Am through much of the 1960s and early 1970s. Given that some of the requirements for the job were to be pretty, young, and unmarried, she fit the bill! Oh yes, and let's not forget that until 1967, airlines were allowed to hire women exclusively, giving Barbie a clear advantage over Ken.

Career Girl Barbie
Career Girl Barbie, 1963

It's no coincidence that Career Girl Barbie was launched in 1963, right after the Equal Pay Act was established. The EPA's intent was to "prohibit discrimination on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers." Although Mattel no doubt meant well, the truth is that women have continued to be paid less than men despite the EPA. With the passing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, however, those days may truly be a thing of the past.

Astronaut Barbie
Astronaut Barbie, 1965

With the inception of the space program and the United States's race to the moon against the Soviet Union in the 1960s, Barbie decided to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, it took NASA a little over ten years to follow Barbie's lead. Despite passing the astronaut admission tests, 13 women were not chosen by NASA in 1962 for the Mercury training program. The first female astronaut in space was Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR. NASA didn't include women as astronaut candidates until 1978, and it wasn't until 1983 that Sally Ride became the first female astronaut from the U.S. to hitch a ride into space.

Surgeon Barbie
Surgeon Barbie, 1973

Barbie elevated her position from nurse to surgeon in 1973, switching from a field filled with women to a tried-and-true boys' club. In the 1970s, only 10% of doctors were female. Today it is 33%. It's been a slow journey, but women are continuing to enter the field of medicine. In 2007-2008, 48.3% of applicants accepted into medical schools were female.

Olympic Athlete Barbie
Gold Medal Barbie, 1973 - 1976

The Olympics were held in Innsbruck, Austria and Montreal, Canada in 1976. Barbie was used as a promotional tie-in to the Olympics, and she won a gold medal in skating, skiing, and swimming. Evidently no one told Barbie that the real gold medalist in skating was none other than Dorothy Hamill. Team U.S.A.!

Aerobics Instructor Barbie
Aerobics Instructor Barbie, 1984

In the 1980s Barbie took a step back in advancing women in the workplace by becoming *gulp* an aerobics instructor. True, these were the days of Jazzercise, unitards, and leg warmers, so one can argue that Barbie was simply taking advantage of finding work in a popular field. It was during this time that gyms began to see that females, not to mention their wallets, could be drawn to the gym with the addition of aerobics classes. Does this mean we have Barbie to thank for that?

Army Medic Barbie
Army Officer Desert Storm Barbie, 1992

Barbie has served in the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines since 1989. Her uniforms were even approved by the Pentagon-talk about authenticity! In 1992, she became Army Officer Desert Storm Barbie. While that goes against her 1986 gig as a World Peace Ambassador, it did show that women were taking huge strides in the military and were serving in Desert Storm. It also let young women know that a career in the military was not only important, but accepted.

NASCAR Driver Barbie
NASCAR Barbie, 1998

NASCAR celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998 and what better way to do it than by introducing NASCAR Barbie? There have been only 16 women to compete in NASCAR, with the first being Sara Christian and the most famous being Danica Patrick. NASCAR Barbie is not only a collector's item, but was also re-issued in 2009 as a "Barbie I Can Be... a Race Car Driver" doll. Zoom, zoom, Barbie!

Presidential Candidate Barbie
Presidential Candidate Barbie, 2008

You may have thought Hilary Clinton was the first female presidental candidate, but the truth is that Barbie ran has run a presidential campaign in 1992, 2004, and 2008. She was even president in 2000, though she wasn't a candidate. Together, Clinton and Barbie have broken new ground for women in politics. It's not a fantasy that a woman will someday be the President of the United States, it's a reality waiting to happen.

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Michele Johansen is a writer in Bellevue, WA. As a mom of two young daughters, she realized the importance of getting out of the house to keep her sanity. She is the co-creator of the Ruby Slipper Guide, a website that lists activities and events for families living east of Seattle and blog that delves into the foils of parenting. She also co-authors a regular feature for 425 Magazine, Kid-Sized Eastside.



Her uniforms were even approved by the Pentagon-talk about authenticity! In 1992, she became Army Officer Desert Storm Barbie.


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