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5 STEM Leadership Lessons From the Barbie Movie

Updated: May 20

barbie doll wearing pink dress

When one of my sisters told me “You would enjoy the Barbie movie,” I was shocked. My 3 sisters and I have never really been “Barbie” people. I have never identified with “girly” in the traditional sense [although I do love a great pedicure, mostly for the foot massage 😊.

So, it was with reluctance that I took my 10-year-old daughter for a mommy-and-me outing to see it. As the first scenes unfolded, I started to think about all the lessons that apply to women in STEM, particularly women in or aspiring to a leadership role. This blog summarizes the highlights.

1) Hold Feelings and Logic - Together! - as a Source of Power

“I have no problem holding feelings and logic. That doesn’t make me weak, it makes me powerful.” - Barbie

STEM Leadership Lesson:

In one sentence, Barbie demolishes the false dichotomy that separates emotion from reason and asserts that strength lies in the integration of both. Leadership research from Harvard Business Review backs up that stance, indicating that leaders who exhibit high levels of emotional intelligence tend to be objectively better at leadership.

As a woman in STEM, embracing this lesson translates to nurturing not just your technical acumen but also fostering a deep-seated understanding and respect for the emotions and viewpoints of your team members. It is about being attuned to the underlying currents of the human aspect in the technological fields, using empathy and listening as tools to bridge gaps and facilitate open conversations.

In your journey, remember that being a leader is not just about getting things done; it involves navigating the complex layers of human motivation with understanding. Your ability to embrace both the thinking and feeling parts of you is what propels you into the realms of powerful and transformative leadership.

2) “Normal” for you isn’t “Normal” for all

Barbie Movie Scenario:

In Barbieland, a world where women predominantly hold leadership positions, Barbie has cultivated a perception of “normal” that is steeply rooted in her own experiences. This perception is upended when she ventures into the real world, where the scenario is almost reversed.

A particularly cringy scene showcases Barbie spotting a billboard featuring women; her immediate assumption is that it displays members of the Supreme Court. It turns out to be an advertisement for a beauty pageant.

This, along with other experiences, becomes a stark revelation for both Barbie and Ken, who realize that their version of “normal” is vastly different in the other world, challenging their preconceived notions and encouraging a broader view of society and its dynamics.

STEM Leadership Lesson:

Your “norm” is a reflection of your personal experiences and exposures, which may determine how you view reality. That norm reflects a relatively narrow view of the world, and may not align with the “norms” of others.

If you want to grow as a leader, seek and listen to divergent viewpoints to understand what reality looks like for others across your industry. This inclusive and adaptive leadership style encourages you to be open to different perspectives and learn from others. Your openness to new ideas and growth mindset act together as, building blocks for both great leadership and innovation.

For example, if there are only a few women in your organization and even fewer in leadership roles, you may believe that gender disparity is a “fact of life” in STEM. For those seeking a gender-equitable organization (which should be everyone!), it can be tempting to give away your power with justifications, such as “it’s the system, I can’t do anything about it”, or it’s just the “way things are.”

But what if I tell you that there are STEM organizations with 40% women in technical roles and that is the norm in those workplaces?

Changing norms starts with a willingness to question the stories that create your “normal”, and checking in with others on their experiences to gain a broader perspective.

You have the power to create your own norms and don’t have to accept the norms you’ve been handed. Creating a better normal (even just a 1% better normal, which can be done simply by how you show up in daily interactions at work!) can be a powerful catalyst in initiating changes that bridge gaps and foster a more inclusive and equitable environment.

3) Beware the Box

Barbie Movie Scenario:

Barbie finds herself in the Matel executive conference room where she is expected to comply with the instructions to “get in the box”. The executives viewed her as disruptive to the status quo, and she was told that if she did get in the box, her struggles would be solved, and everything would go back to “normal”.

Barbie refuses to get in the box and runs away, but not before strongly considering doing what she’s told.

STEM Leadership Lesson:

Barbie’s box scene is a metaphor for “good girl” expectations held for women in society. Women are told much of their lives and careers to not cause problems, never be “too much” (bossy, loud, direct, assertive, ambitious, etc.), to be collaborative peacemakers who always put everyone else first, and to be compliant.

The “box” can also represent the traditional norms and expectations that define traditional leadership, especially within well-established organizations. For women in STEM promoted into leadership roles, and especially for those who are the first, only, or one of very few women, the pressures to conform to traditional leadership styles can be amplified. Those pressures, make it easy to find yourself stuck in a leadership rut that both feels inauthentic and perpetuates the status quo.

The problem: upholding existing norms supports the same systems that restrict women, minorities, and others who “lead differently”, hindering authentic growth and representation at higher levels within the organization. As a leader (or emerging one!) in STEM, consider:

Am I voluntarily confining myself to a “box” either by words or actions?

Am I defining expectations or conforming to expectations?

Am I leading in a way authentic to me, even if it’s different from the leaders around me?

Is my leadership style perpetuating norms or creating a better “normal”?

Great leadership is about bringing out the best in others.

That includes using your voice and position to challenge and disrupt norms that don’t serve yourself and those you are leading. This means actively working towards dismantling the structures that encourage the existence of these “boxes”, which often manifest as stereotypes/assumptions at work in the first place.

Great leadership should act as a “box breaker”, not a “box enabler”, as was the case in the Barbie scene.

4) Perfection is Overrated (and Exhausting!)

Barbie Movie Scenario:

At the beginning of the movie, there’s a (very pink) montage where everything in Barbie world is perfect, down to the arches in Barbie’s feet for heels. Barbie starts to realize something is “wrong” as her feet fall, and she starts to have dark, “not-perfect” thoughts about things like death.

Barbie initially assumes something is wrong with her, and eventually goes to “Weird Barbie” (my FAVORITE character in the movie) for help. It’s not until much later in the movie, when Barbie starts to embrace and find strength in her imperfections, that she fully steps into her power and agency to change the real world.

STEM Leadership Lesson:

It is a fine line between the pursuit of excellence and being disempowered by the notion that something isn’t perfect. The Barbie movie illustrated that perfection is not only an unrealistic aspiration but that it can also be an exhausting and anxiety-invoking pursuit.

STEM leaders can often feel like they need to be right and have all the answers, embodying their own version of perfection. This can lead to a reluctance to delegate, and micromanagement (because others don’t do things as perfectly as you). It can also lead to, procrastination in decision-making (because you’re waiting to have the perfect amount of info before deciding), wasting time outside your genius zone, and burnout due to the long hours all these things together create.

The idea of perfection as an aspiration can even foster toxic work environments, where mistakes are viewed as character flaws and individual strengths and quirks are suppressed rather than celebrated.

As a leader in STEM, it is vital to recognize and dispel the myth of perfection.

Embracing your unique skills and perspectives is essential to unlocking both your own individual potential AND your ability to model transformative and authentic leadership. When you give yourself permission to be you - in all your human imperfections - this in turn gives those you lead the same permissions because you are leading by example. Data shows that when people feel they bring all of themselves to work, we see greater innovation, creativity, and connections within teams.

5) Leadership Lessons Can Be Learned in Uncommon Places

The Barbie movie wasn’t a place I expected to see leadership lessons and is a reminder that everyday situations can lead to unexpected revelations when you are present and paying attention. You never know where your next “aha” will come from, if you are open to receiving it.

Embracing your unique weirdness takes courage, but something magnificent happens when you make that decision. You stand as a beacon for others to begin to do the same. You push past the barriers and boxes society tries to keep you in and from that place, true growth arises.

By: Stephanie Slocum, 2023 Engineer of the Year

Connect with Stephanie: LinkedIn

Read this article in the Empowering Women in Industry Digital Magazine:

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