Scientist says we should ditch Barbie for Lego

Sep 4, 2015 at 1:29 p.m. ET

One of the U.K.’s top scientists says the “wrong toys” are partly responsible for putting girls off pursuing a career in science and engineering — and she's singled out Barbie as being one of the main culprits.

Dame Athene Donald, who is Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, believes more “creative” toys such as Lego and Meccano, which are more likely to be given to boys than girls, should replace traditional “girls’ toys,” reported The Telegraph.

Dame Athene used her inaugural address as the new President of the British Science Association to suggest: “We need to change the way we think about boys and girls and what’s appropriate for them from a very young age.”

“Does the choice of toys matter?” she asked. “I believe it does.

“We introduce social constructs by stereotyping what toys boys and girls receive from the earliest age,” she went on. “Girls' toys are typically liable to lead to passivity — combing the hair of Barbie, for instance — not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano.”

Dame Athene also called out schools for being “lazy” and reinforcing gender stereotypes when it came to sourcing work experience placements for pupils, stating that it wasn’t “good for either sex” for girls to be placed in beauty salons and boys to be directed towards car garages.

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So is my Barbie-filled childhood to blame for my aversion to science and maths? I’m not so sure. I think you’re either drawn towards those subjects or you’re not. And, for what it’s worth, I have a 5-year-old daughter who is the prime target to be recruited into the pink, pretty, sparkly, princessy world of Barbie and all her girly chums. But she shuns all that to get down on the floor with her big brother and build elaborate Lego castles — with not a princess in sight.

So for me it’s pretty simple. Give my girl a Barbie and she’ll give that skinny blonde a withering look and dive head first into the nearest box of Lego. I realised this fairly early on and I don’t think it’s simply because she has an older brother whom she adores. I know plenty of little girls with big brothers and they don’t give up princess role-play time to get to grips with Meccano.

However I do agree with Dame Athene’s issue with gender stereotypes in schools. Case in point: when my daughter was at pre-school her class had two advent calendars. A Spiderman one and a Frozen one. It doesn’t take much to work out which one was for the girls and which one was for the boys. Surprise, surprise — my daughter longed for a chocolate from the Spiderman calendar when it was her turn to open a window but didn’t want to ask in case the other kids laughed at her.

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It’s little things like this, from a young age, that unintentionally reinforce gender stereotypes in our children’s schools. And this, I believe, is much more influential — and potentially harmful — than the toys our daughters play with in their free time.

“If teachers and parents, peers and the media give the message to the teenage girl that physics and engineering are subjects for boys and men we should not be surprised,” said Dame Athene.

“Organisations such as the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) are always highlighting the shortage of qualified students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects and one way of addressing this would be to ensure that half the population doesn’t feel it's not for them.”

The professor also pointed out that a lack of science education was by no means restricted to women and that it seems to be more culturally acceptable to be ignorant about sciences than the arts.

“If a politician says I can’t do maths, no-one thinks, philistine,” she said. “If they admitted to never having read any Shakespeare or Dickens, the attitude would be very different.”

The answer, as I see it, is threefold. Don’t pigeonhole little girls into typically “female” interests and subjects. Don’t pigeonhole little boys into typically “male” interests and subjects. And give all children the time and freedom to explore all their options, without forcing them to go down the arts or sciences route from a young age.

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