A few weeks ago, Mattel and the National Geographic Society announced that they were joining forces, with one noteworthy result: the introduction of "Entomologist Barbie." My initial reaction to this was an eye-roll, but judging by the reactions of most of my respected scientist colleagues, I have come to appreciate this a little more. That is not to say I no longer have reservations.
Lately I view almost every new item in the marketplace with skepticism because I have come to believe that "product" is seldom the answer to anything. Problems are often created for the purpose of invention. The problem that this new doll is addressing is a very real one, but the product does not solve it. The issue is the lack of women in positions of leadership in the sciences.
Traditionally, Barbie has reflected a very narrow range of career choices for women, narrower ethnic diversity, and a uniformly slender, arguably underweight, industry standard for fashion models. Mattel has gradually begun to recognize that they can have a greater market share in the toy industry by keeping up with progressive attitudes and values. Forgive my cynicism that they care about much else. At least I am less blunt than the writer of this article in The Guardian.
Perhaps the National Geographic Society partnership is having a more positive influence on the toy-maker? That would be wonderful. I was pleasantly surprised that in a cursory search of explorers, as associates of Nat Geo are called, there is a respectable balance of women and men, and recognition of global diversity among scientists and scholars. There are young people and elder statesmen. This spectrum of curious and dedicated folk is exactly what it should be, or closely approaches it.
You want a flesh-and-blood role model for your girls? Ok, I can offer some, like Dr. May Berenbaum of the National Academy of Sciences. How about Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker, the "Bug Chicks?" There's "Bug Gwen" who writes for Wired. Dr. Stephanie Dole is the "Beetle Lady" who makes her living doing presentations to children in California. Oh, I cannot forget Joanie Mars and Nancy Miorelli from Ask an Entomologist. I could go on and on with only the esteemed women scientists I know personally. Most of them are shockingly accessible to you, the public, online and in person.
All of these real-life women have had to struggle to earn the same respect granted their male counterparts. Science is still very sexist, though steadily improving, we would hope. Unfortunately, Barbie has no power to further that cause, putting more women scientists into positions of power and authority, influencing policy that is long overdue for redirection so as to be more humane, more responsive to the issues of our time.
Meanwhile, National Geographic might entertain more substantive partners from this point forward. Maybe team up with BioQuip Products so aspiring young entomologists, girls or boys, can get their very own magnifiers, insect nets, and other equipment that their professional scientist heroes use. Here is a wild idea: Idea Wild is a non-profit that puts badly-needed equipment in the hands of scientists in third world nations so that they can conduct necessary research to conserve and protect the wildlife of their homelands. They are in their twenty-fifth year of service to our conservationists abroad. They could use a higher profile and more funding.
So, before you spring for the beautiful, blonde, bug-collecting Barbie, consider whether you might make more of an impact in advancing the careers of young female scientists, including entomologists, in other ways. More plastic playthings are not going to do that. Dolls are unfortunately disposable, our youth are not. Oh, and as a colleague recently pointed out in an online whisper, Entomologist Barbie doesn't even have the right kind of microscope.