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What Barbie's professional history says about women in the labor force

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

With more than 200 careers under her belt, Barbie's resume can tell us a lot about the journey of women in the American workforce. Wailin Wong and Adrian Ma from our daily economics podcast The Indicator give us a crash course in labor economics, Barbie-style.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: For today's lesson in Barbie labor economics, we had one particular teacher in mind.

BARB FLOWERS: My name is Barb Flowers. I was a coordinator in economic education at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

WONG: So your name is Barb. Have you ever gone by Barbie?

FLOWERS: I have avoided that my entire life (laughter).

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: OK. We'll stick to calling her Barb. So Barb, who is now retired, spent her career in economics education. And about 10 years ago, she developed a curriculum for high school students that put a Barbie spin on womens' labor history. Her lesson plan introduced some basic vocab terms like labor force and labor force participation.

WONG: And then comes the fun part of Barb's lesson plan. And so, Adrian, you have not seen this before, so this will be fresh to you.

MA: No. Yeah. Going in cold.

WONG: So students get a stack of 30 cards, each one has a picture of a different career Barbie on it. And they have to try to put the Barbies in order of when they were introduced. Are you ready to try this?

MA: Yeah.

WONG: Do you know what the very first Barbie's job was?

MA: The first Barbie's job? Was it like a teacher?

WONG: Oh, that's a really good guess. It was fashion model.

MA: Fashion model? OK.

WONG: So fashion model was Barbie's first job. Now, here is astronaut Barbie, if you want to look at this card.

MA: Yeah.

WONG: So what year, roughly, would you guess this astronaut Barbie was introduced?

MA: Wait. When did we go to the moon? Let's say 1969.

WONG: Oh, good guess. It's actually 1965.

MA: Oh.

WONG: But if you think about it, this astronaut Barbie came out four years before the moon landing and almost 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman to go to space.

MA: Huh. So Barbie is, like, ahead of the curve.

WONG: Yes, exactly. So throughout the years, Barbie's career has sometimes been a leading indicator of what was going on with women in the workforce. For example, surgeon Barbie came out in 1973, when there were barely any women in that specialty. Other times, Barbie's career has been a lagging indicator, reflecting jobs where women were already well-represented like nurse or teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) Teacher Barbie rings the bell for recess fun and gives a hug for a job well done.

MA: Barb Flowers says that Barbie's jobs have always been this mix of jobs that were more aspirational and those that were actually more reflective of the kinds of jobs women actually held during the time. And in some ways, that mirrors Barb's own career in economics and teaching.

FLOWERS: My economics classes, I was one of very few women. And when - in grad school, oh, my goodness, there were very few. But then when I got into education, now I was back with, you know, the women in education.

WONG: Do you ever think about what retirement Barbie would look like?

FLOWERS: Oh, probably a lot like me.

WONG: And is she still wearing heels, or is she wearing, like, gardening clogs?

FLOWERS: No. I have not worn heels in a long time. Barbie's pretty laid back (laughter) - this Barbie is.

MA: That is the kind of aspirational figure that I can get behind.

WONG: Right? Yeah. Like, a laid back, cool, retired economic educator.

MA: Yeah. Chillin' (ph), comfortable shoes.

WONG: (Laughter).

MA: Adrian Ma.

WONG: Wailin Wong. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.
Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.
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