gender, human conditions

Playing With Barbies May Dampen Girls’ Career Aspirations

Have you ever wondered how playing with certain dolls, or other toys, can affect a child’s future career choices? The researchers involved in a recent study on this subject did and they got some interesting results. Overall, they found that a girl who played with a Mrs. Potato Head doll thought she had a wider variety of career options compared to a girl who played with a Barbie doll. Additionally, a girl who played with a Barbie doll thought that a boy had more career options than a girl who played with a Mrs. Potato Head doll.

Barbie dolls gender roles careers
(Image credit: Stefano Bolognini)

The study involved 37 girls living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, aged four to seven years old. The girls had five minute exposures to one of three different dolls: a fashion Barbie, a doctor Barbie, and a Mrs. Potato Head doll. (The Barbie dolls both had the exact same body, but different clothing.) After the exposures, the girls were shown pictures (without people in them) representing 10 different occupations and asked how many of those jobs they thought they could do, and how many of those jobs they thought a boy could do. No matter which doll the girls played with, they said that boys could do more of the jobs than they could, especially when considering careers that are typically male-dominated (based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). (For example, these careers include ones in the areas of computers, mathematics, architecture, engineering, and construction, whereas female-dominated careers include ones in the areas of personal care, service, education, and libraries.) But this difference was much greater for the girls playing with Barbies compared to the ones playing with Mrs. Potato Head.

Specifically, overall, girls picked an average of 4.6 careers that boys could do, but only about 3.7 that they themselves could do. After playing with either Barbie doll, girls said that they could do 3.3 careers, whereas boys could do 4.8 careers. However, after playing with the Mrs. Potato Head doll, girls thought they could do 4.1 careers — a clear increase — whereas boys could do 4.5 careers — a decrease. The authors attribute this difference to the sexualization of the Barbie doll, and say that this effect may be similar to ones seen in studies on the objectification of women that are college age.

While this study shows that the type of dolls girls play with may affect their career aspirations on the short-term, it would be interesting to see a longer-term study that investigates whether such childhood toy play affects actual career decisions later in life.

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