Barbie has had many careers: Aerobics instructor, paleontologist, and scuba diver, to name a few. Now, the 59-year-old doll is taking on yet another role—teaching girls to code.
Toymaker Mattel announced a series of Barbie-branded coding lessons at the annual International Toy Fair in New York, which kicked off last Saturday. The new curriculum is the product of a partnership with Mountain View, Calif.-based startup Tynker, which makes educational programming tools for kids. Mattel and Tynker began their partnership three years ago, but up until now the only brands made available to the startup were Hot Wheels and Monster High, the popular toy car line which has long been targeted at boys and another doll brand that never quite reached Barbie fame, respectively. Now, Tynker will be able to incorporate the iconic doll and her posse of injection-molded friends into their software curriculum for kids.
“We believe Barbie is a beacon to empower girls,” Mattel CEO Margo Georgiadis told Fortune in an exclusive phone interview ahead of the toy convention. “So we will continue to leverage Barbie to inspire girls to pursue the things they love.”
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Girls—and therefore, women—are significantly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The gap starts early, but by the time they get to the workplace, women make up less than one-quarter of those employed in STEM occupations. Georgiadis, who took over as CEO of Mattel early last year, has made it her mission to “techify” the company’s aging product lineup. That includes everything from creating more early coding toys for young kids to embedding natural language processing capabilities into Barbie’s Dreamhouse. According to Georgiadis, there are many other initiatives planned for utilizing Barbie to inspire and teach girls to enter STEM-related fields.
Mattel and Tynker say that programming “experiences” created by the startup’s standing partnership with the toymaker have already reached nearly 4 million kids. Now, with Barbie’s help, Georgiadis wants to reach a collective 10 million children by 2020. According to Tynker CEO Krishna Vedati, the new curriculum will be for kids in kindergarten and up, and will introduce them to basic programming concepts via seven learning “modules,” to be launched this coming summer. (A basic version of the curriculum will be available for parents and teachers free of charge; a premium one that allows for grade-specific tracking and more personalized functions will come with a subscription fee.)
“Obviously, Mattel is an iconic brand,” says Vedati, whose company has also inked partnerships with Microsoft-owned Minecraft to create educational products for kids.
Mattel is an iconic brand, as are many of its product lines. But it has also had a hard time transforming its portfolio to compete in today’s world (think the move to online shopping and the ubiquity and allure of mobile devices). In its last quarterly earnings report—which included the peak holiday season—the company posted a 12% decline in sales. Barbie, however, was a bright spot: up 9% in that same quarter. So who knows, maybe the controversial doll will actually be able to help diminish the gender gap in STEM, at least when it comes to getting girls into the field (keeping them there is a different story). After all, it won’t be Barbie’s first groundbreaking foray into a new career.