For many years, most toys representing the female sex were perceived as either sexist (Barbie) or patronizing (seen by the host of helpless baby girl dolls). There were few role models for a young girl and even if a super heroine emerged (think of the new Spiderwoman heroine), she was dressed so that every curve was emphasized in her ridiculously over-proportioned body. Though Barbie tried to flirt with professions and she has 150 career opportunities – like the Astronaut, Racing Driver even CEO – who could take her seriously? She spent most of her time in skimpy clothes, doing nothing of any consequence, adding to the consumer economy and creating the shopaholic syndrome. Gender research shows that girls are conditioned or “primed” at a very early age to take more “feminine” roles (Pomerleau et al., 1990; Blakemore and Centers, 2005).
We all are all guilty of buying girls – dolls; and boys – sporty toys like a ball. Sports teaches competitiveness and also that there are winners. Playing dolls allows girls to conform to society and the notion of “being nice” – and then we wonder why women are so reluctant to stand up for their rights and raise their voices. Our role models are our mothers but most young girls see their moms cooking, cleaning and doing the grocery, waiting for their dad to come home and the message sets in at least subconsciously – this is the role to emmulate. What they don’t see is the career the mother gave up, the intelligence she has or the sacrifices she made. By the time they realise it – the formative years (0-8) are over. The damage is done.
Of course like any good scientific argument there is debate – and in this case it boils down to nature versus nurture. While neuro-imaging shows men and women have different patterns of brain activation, perhaps these differences begin at an early age. Cherney et al. (2010) found in their study of children aged 18-47 months that higher levels of complex play were associated with female stereotyped toys! So whether nature or nurture takes precedence, I think we can safely assume that toys do have a role to play in the development of a child.
It was a welcome relief that Toy manufacturers and Media influencers of young girls started addressing the STEM gender gap. This is an area women are lagging behind. Not in the formative years but by the time they hit University, many drop out of these subjects and of those that complete degree qualifications, many women prefer not to work. The launch of Disney’s Junior Doc McStuffins: Time For Your Check Up! App in 2013 and Lego’s new female scientist (palaeontologist, chemist and astronomer) sets in June 2014 are good introductions. For Lego – it showed they were listening – as this new set was a part of the crowd-sourced design platform called Lego Ideas and the idea was contributed by a woman scientist – geophysicist Ellen Kooijman. So companies can and should listen and realise that the female half of the world can and should have a voice. Sales are showing that the time is ripe for this change! Perhaps we need role models of toys ad media heroes supporting women in career options too?