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How Have Barbie’s Career Prospects Compared to Those of Real U.S. Women?

Barbie has shattered glass ceilings with over 200 careers since 1959, reflecting and sometimes outpacing real U.S. women's job gains. From astronaut to president, she's been an icon of possibility. Yet, how does this translate to real-world progress for women in the workforce? Consider how Barbie's evolving roles mirror our society's strides and challenges. What's your take on this symbolic journey?
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

Even if you’ve tried to ignore the advertising onslaught, you probably haven’t been able to avoid seeing articles and social media posts about the new Barbie movie, which was recently released in cinemas.

Directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, the movie both celebrates and subverts the famous doll’s idealized, unattainable DreamHouse lifestyle (and body shape – think permanently arched feet), as well as her debatable status as a feminist icon.

Whatever your thoughts on the film – and Barbie in general – her cultural impact has been undeniable, with generations of girls (and some boys, of course) growing up playing with Barbie and her pals, such as Ken and Skipper.

Barbie has held over 250 jobs since her introduction in 1959, predating of American women in some roles, such as astronaut, pro baseball player, and US president.
Barbie has held over 250 jobs since her introduction in 1959, predating of American women in some roles, such as astronaut, pro baseball player, and US president.

Introduced in 1959 and named after the daughter of Barbie creator (and Mattel co-founder) Ruth Handler, Barbie was one of the first dolls made to look like an adult woman, rather than a baby or young child, allowing the girls who played with her to imagine what their own grownup lives might be like.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Barbie, besides her off-the-scale bust-waist-hip measurements (which have become somewhat more realistic in recent years thanks to Curvy, Tall, and Petite Barbies) is how many jobs she has held (over 250, according to Mattel) – sometimes achieving professional milestones ahead of women in the real world.

For example, Barbie made her first foray into space in 1965 as Miss Astronaut, wearing a silver suit that resembled those worn by Project Mercury astronauts. However, it wasn’t until 1983 that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. Mattel honored her in 2019 by releasing a Sally Ride doll as part of its ’“Inspiring Women” collection.

Doctor Barbie was released in 1973, coinciding with growing numbers of women in medicine. Since then, Mattel has released many other Barbies who work in the medical field, most recently a line of dolls based on women who made exceptional contributions during the Covid-19 pandemic, including vaccinologist and Oxford AstraZeneca Covid vaccine co-developer Sarah Gilbert.

Interestingly, although Barbie has run for president many times since her first campaign in 1992, it wasn’t until this year that Mattel released a President Barbie, coinciding with Issa Rae’s character in the Barbie film.

Other working Barbies:

  • Barbie has had many iterations as a “career girl,” perhaps most famously as Day-to-Night Barbie (alternatively known as CEO Barbie), whose pink daytime office wear and briefcase can be swapped out for an evening dress.

  • Beginning with Army Barbie in 1989, Barbie has joined various branches of the U.S. military, including as an aerobatic pilot for the Air Force’s Thunderbirds in 1994. The first real-life female pilot with the Thunderbirds was Nicole Malachowski, who joined in 2005.

  • In the late 1990s, a line of professional sports-themed Barbie dolls debuted wearing NBA, WNBA, and MLB uniforms, though no woman has played in an NBA or MLB game – yet.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • Barbie has held over 250 jobs since her introduction in 1959, predating of American women in some roles, such as astronaut, pro baseball player, and US president.
      Barbie has held over 250 jobs since her introduction in 1959, predating of American women in some roles, such as astronaut, pro baseball player, and US president.