Inspire your daughter to become an architect by buying her an “I Can Be” Barbie doll this holiday season. For about $30 on Amazon, you can buy her a present that could put her on the path toward medical school: I Can Be Doctor Barbie. But you can pay less still to get your daughter thinking about a career in architecture: $20 for I Can Be Architect Barbie, or $15 for I Can Be African-American Architect Barbie.
So what gives, Mattel? According to Emily Oster over at Slate, the price differential is probably not Mattel’s fault, at least not directly. The difference has less to do with the product itself, and more to do with what you’re willing to pay for the doll.
If it were simple economics, she says, the extra five dollars that you pay for a white Architect Barbie would signal to the consumer that this Barbie is a superior product. In reality, of course, it’s almost exactly the same doll, aside from the difference in skin color—and what the buyer is willing to pay for it. (Different prices for Barbies of different races isn’t a new phenomenon. ABC News slammed Walmart for selling white Barbies for more than black Barbies in 2010.)
“Richer people, on average, are going to be willing to spend more for a Barbie,” Oster writes. “Knowing this, Barbie’s distributors would ideally like to base the price of any Barbie on the buyer’s income.”
In Oster’s piece, she looks at the various Barbie occupations and the pricing discrepancies between the different dolls. I Can Be a Magician Barbie costs $12.99 on Amazon, whereas I Can Be a Doctor Barbie costs $32.91, she notes. Architect Barbie, touting her blueprints and hardhat, falls somewhere between a doll with a magic wand and a doll with a stethoscope, pricewise. (Currently, the Doctor Barbie doll is listed at $29.99 on Amazon.)
After ruling out pricier accessories, Oster attributes the price tag difference to price discrimination. “People are often willing to pay different prices for the same products, either because they have more money to spare, or because they really like the product more,” she writes. “Companies know this, and would like to take advantage of it. If they can just identify those consumers who will pay more, and charge them more, it’s good for their bottom line.”
(Mattel, the Barbie manufacturer, could not comment on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price for either Architect Barbie doll, as they are both currently out of stock.)
Finding those big spenders, it turns out, isn’t all that difficult, Oster says. Just look for the people with the biggest paychecks. Computer Engineer Barbie retails on Amazon for $31.95, and that’s no accident.
Of course, there are other explanations for price variance, such as the number of dolls left in stock and the seller’s desired profit—but what’s really at play here is the perception of architecture as a profession. The architect dolls aren’t flying off the shelves because it’s not as glamorous or as lucrative of a profession. So how do retailers make sure they can unload those less desirable dolls? They lower the price.
Amanda Hurley writes in ARCHITECT that “only 16 percent of the AIA’s membership is female.” Statistics like that don’t scream opportunity for women; not to mention the staggering unemployment rate in the field.
Toys’R’Us, one of Barbie’s top retailers, says it all in its description of the Barbie product:
Barbie® is a reflection of the times and always culturally relevant. Barbie® is the world's only brand that allows girls to imagine themselves as a mermaid to a movie star, a fairy to a fashionista, and a princess to a president … The Barbie® brand serves a purpose to girls as they try on different personalities, careers, and explore the world and all of its possibilities without ever having to leave home!
Diversifying the profession and attracting young talent means making the architectural profession appealing to both boy and girls from every race and background, even from a young age. Girls especially need to be shown that a hard hat can look just as good as a stethoscope.