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Andrea Newell headshot

Mattel Missed a Big Opportunity with 'Entrepreneur Barbie'

By Andrea Newell

Barbie recently started the latest of 150+ careers: Entrepreneur Barbie. It's a timely topic because female entrepreneurship has been growing exponentially in the past several years, but Mattel sticks to their formula Barbie and misses a great opportunity to branch out and really inspire young girls.

With Entrepreneur Barbie, Mattel had a chance to show more than one image of a female business owner--but stayed with generic Barbie. Mattel reported that Barbie sales have been steadily falling in recent years (Barbie revenue was down 40 percent in the U.S. in 2012), and this would have been a way to show that Barbie was adapting to a new reality, one where girls see more realistic role models. Many women who start their own businesses are older, experienced businesswomen, or moms with a unique idea, or both, along with a dozen other iterations besides a shiny, plastic businesswoman. The description of the doll gives no specifics about Barbie's business, except that she has all the latest toys (her business must be well-funded).

Mattel is ignoring many of the latest trends, including companies like GoldieBlox, a woman-owned business that encourages girls to learn engineering principles (STEM careers) and recently won a contest to have an ad in the Super Bowl, and Girls Will Be. This popular Kickstarter-funded company makes girls clothing that isn't "pink and sparkly" and whose latest line of shorts is generously cut, not "short-shorts" in response to parents and girls who are rejecting the skinny-fit, pink and tight lines of girls clothes available today.

Entrepreneur Barbie's release also coincides closely with Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org and Getty Images' campaign to change the image of women entrepreneurs to be more empowering. Bloomberg Businessweek found that searches for "women in business" were turning up images of women massaging their male colleague, crawling under their desks in short skirts (for reasons unknown) and walking down an aisle of leering men, among others.

Now, searching for "female entrepreneur" or reviewing the Lean In Collection on Getty shows a wide variety of female-centric images of women that look creative and hardworking, not just sexy. One woman is in a hard hat doing inventory, another is in an apron, leaning over an ice chest full of fish, and many are in front of laptops, although not many seem to be so dressed up as Barbie, and they come in all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities. They are also featured with male colleagues in a more equitable manner.

Why does stock photography matter? Often, it is the way that companies find images to represent their business in ads, catalogs, annual reports and websites. Increasingly organizations are realizing that these images are not the face they want to put on their business, but good images of women in business (along with men) were hard to find. As Sandberg told AdWeek, "You can't be what you can't see. In an age where media are all around us, it is critical that images provide examples that both women and men can emulate."

Is it unfortunate that Barbie is not only clinging to its stagnant image, but taking things one step further by starring as Sports Illustrated's cover image for its swimsuit issue this month--doubling down on its unrealistic measurements and plastic visage. Sports Illustrated and Mattel stood by their choice despite widespread criticism.

Now, Entrepreneur Barbie hits the shelves. While some female entrepreneurs may well look this way, it is such a small part of the story, and Mattel fails to tell it. What would be great is if they released other versions of Entrepreneur Barbie (although they do have the same doll available in brunette and African American versions), or featured a tableau where an older version of Barbie sat behind a laptop (or did inventory or sorted fish) and Ken vacuumed and Barbie's child set the table. That would be something that would at least tell another version of the story.

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell