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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Vaccinologist Barbie

She’s got baggage, but the doll is striking out in newer directions

By: Editorial |
Updated: August 5, 2021 8:04:38 am
Despite her history of promoting unrealistic beauty standards and sexist attitudes, Barbie may just be the doll for the job.

What a year for Professor Sarah Gilbert. Not only was the vaccinologist, who designed the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid jab, honoured with a damehood this June, she’s now got a Barbie in her likeness. US toy maker Mattel has just released a Dame Gilbert doll, complete with red hair, glasses and a pantsuit, as one of six Barbies that pay tribute to women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Even though she described it as a little “strange”, Gilbert’s hope is that her doll will help girls realise that it is “normal” for them to aspire to STEM careers.

This would have seemed like an odd thing to say — of course, it’s normal for girls to want to be scientists, doctors and engineers — were it not for the hard facts. Around the world, STEM fields are dominated by men, even though in primary school, girls are as proficient as boys in maths and science. But as they grow older, ingrained biases, stereotypes and socio-economic pressures, especially in the developing world, steer girls away from STEM fields, sometimes even forcing them to drop out of education and forfeiting any chance at a career. According to data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, less than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women — the ignominy of this figure has led the UN to include “Women in science” as one of the themes for its Sustainable Development Goals.

Despite her history of promoting unrealistic beauty standards and sexist attitudes, Barbie may just be the doll for the job. Since 2016, she has come in more diverse and inclusive forms — wearing a hijab, with natural hair, in a wheelchair, and as a boxer, tractor driver and firefighter. And while the heavy lifting in the battle against gender discrimination will have to be done by governments and policymakers everywhere, Vaccinologist Barbie could show little girls everywhere that they can be whoever they want to be.

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