Mattel's most popular toy girl, Barbie is becoming more and more inclusive and now represents women in different areas at work and women of colour. A new Barbie has been sculpted after Indo-American ecologist and Scientist at the University of Utah, Nalini Nadkarni. This is reportedly the first time, Mattel is launching a Barbie after an Indian-origin scientist. The popular toy-manufacturing company collaborated with National Geographic and took Nadkarni on board the project as an advisor to come up with four women of colour Barbies, who represent different STEM professions namely, astrophysicists, nature photographers, entomologists, and wildlife biologists.
However, this wasn't always the case as Mattel wasn't always so inclusive.
At a very early stage in her career, Nadkarni, who is a pioneer in rain forest ecology and had an avid interest in canopies – the part of the trees just above the forest floor to the very top branches, understood that there weren't many women in canopy studying. And so to encourage more girls into ecology studies and canopy research, she designed TreeTop Barbies in the early 2000s. She and her lab colleagues bought second-hand Barbies and got a tailor to make customised clothes that suited a researcher version of the Barbie. It was a small project that she took up to advocate the need for more women to come into canopy research.
She even pitched the idea to Mattel to give it a legitimate form. However, Mattel turned her down saying, “We're not interested. That has no meaning to us. We make our own Barbies,” Nadkarni told NPR.
It did not dampen her spirits and she continued to make TreeTop Barbies and created a field guide to canopy plants. She sold around 400 of these dolls and carried them to conferences and events that she attended - such was her enthusiasm.
“People … really liked this idea of linking a female scientist with the traditional Barbie doll. We’ve had many people ordering TTB for their daughter or niece or granddaughter, and all have said it is a big hit,” Nadkarni said The Daily Utah Chronicle.
Soon after, The New York Times covered her initiative to bring more women and young girls into STEM courses through these TreeTop Barbies and people at Mattel found out about it.
They allegedly tried to convince her to close down her initiative because of brand infringement, but Nadkarni resisted as she recounted, “I know a number of journalists who would be really interested in knowing that Mattel is trying to shut down a small, brown woman who's trying to inspire young girls to go into science.” So Mattel stopped and let her continue with her small setup.
She even pitched the idea to Mattel to give it a legitimate form. However, Mattel turned her down saying, "We're not interested. That has no meaning to us. We make our own Barbies"
Cut to a decade and a half and life has come full circle for Nadkarni as Mattel — a company that first rejected the idea of Barbie in rubber boots, helmets and science gear, came around creating the same Barbies and a few others in the same genre. Better late than never, as the saying goes.
Nadkarni said in a statement, “In 2019, adventurous Barbies who have exciting scientific professions are on Mattel’s radar, as they have figured that there is a market for them. That shows amazing progress of a corporation, and of society.”