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Sapna Cheryan battles STEM stereotypes as a member of Mattel’s Barbie Global Advisory Council

Battling STEM stereotypes, UW’s Sapna Cheryan helps Barbie evolve

Kim Eckart, UW News

Sapna Cheryan has spent much of her career researching the stereotypes that contribute to male-dominated science and technology fields.

She’s traced those ideas to childhood, to the toys boys and girls play with and to the beliefs they form about who programs a computer and who feels at home in a lab.

So when Mattel in the spring asked Cheryan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, to advise on its most iconic toy – the Barbie doll – it felt, somewhat ironically, like an opportunity.

“If there’s a way to influence children, it’s through a toy,” Cheryan said. “Toys are really important. The first way kids get experience with different fields is through toys, like a toy microscope. But the toy market is very gender-segregated. Physics toys and dinosaurs are still seen as boys’ toys.

“Toys are communicating who’s interested, who’s good, and who belongs.”

The Barbie Global Advisory Council is made up of 12 people from a range of occupations who serve a one-year term to, as the company puts it, “act as a collective sounding board for the brand.” Mattel picked Cheryan because of her research on diversity, stereotypes and gender gaps in STEM, all of which will “help inform and refine Barbie brand initiatives” around career-themed dolls and related items, according to a statement from the company.

Women are underrepresented in many STEM fields, especially computer science, engineering and physics. According to a 2017 study led by Cheryan, women earn 37 percent of STEM degrees in the United States, and 18 percent of computer science degrees.

This year’s Barbie Council includes other experts in STEM-related fields, as well as culture and identity, such as Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor of psychology at NYU; Emily Calandrelli, host of the Xploration Outer Space TV show; and Kevin Clark, director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University.

Read the entire story here.