Researchers have found that girls who play with Barbie dolls see fewer career options for themselves than boys.
“Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls’ ideas about their place in the world. It creates a limit on the sense of what’s possible for their future. While it is not a massive effect, it is a measurable and statistically significant effect,” cautioned Aurora M. Sherman, an associate professor in the school of psychological science at Oregon State University in the US.
For parents, the most important thing is to look at the child’s toy box and make sure there is a wide variety of toys to play with, Sherman added.
Sherman’s experiment was designed to examine how Barbie might influence girls’ career aspirations.
Girls aged 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls — a fashion Barbie with dress and high-heeled shoes, a career Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope, or a Mrs Potato Head (a neutral, not-so-sexy doll) with accessories such as purses and shoes.
After a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up.
They were also asked if boys could do those jobs.
Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.
There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.
Toys such as dolls or action figures can influence a child’s ideas about their future, Sherman added.
It is possible that some girls are more vulnerable to adverse messages from fashion dolls such as Barbie, she pointed out in the study published in the journal Sex Roles.
Barbie, introduced in 1959, was the first fashion doll with an emphasis on her clothes and appearance.