Should girls stop playing with Barbie?

The new president of the British Science Association, Dame Athene Donald, has suggested that girls' toys are reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Barbie leads to "passivity – combing the hair of Barbie, for instance – not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano".

Gender stereotypes are very hard to shift.

Every effort to do so should be applauded. But my view is that taking Barbies away from little girls will do absolutely nothing to change a much more deep-rooted cultural problem.

First, it is perfectly possible to build and construct things imaginatively with dolls at the centre of play. When I was a child, I was given a doll's house that was pretty much falling down. The interesting thing about playing with it was rebuilding it – and, of course, there were no templates to follow. So perhaps the point is to offer children of any gender less finished toys to play with.

Suggesting that playing with dolls is in some way second-rate for a child’s education reinforces gender stereotypes. It implies once again that femininity is worse than masculinity. This matters in a world where most senior business roles are held by men and where an eminent scientist can cause uproar with his comments about gender.

Little girls like playing with dolls at certain points of their development. They also, in my experience, like playing with trains, cars, Meccano and plastic building bricks. They sometimes like dressing up as princesses. They sometimes like to dress as Batman or Superman.

What about boys, then?

We know they like dressing up as Spider-Man and playing with bricks. Do we even know if they would like to dress in pink or play with dolls? Are they normally allowed to? Let’s face it, even in this day and age, it is rare. Why should that be? It can only be because there’s some kind of fear of infection with femininity, when in fact we know (don’t we?) that both masculine and feminine values are important for the workplace and that diversity in people makes a business stronger.

I quite frequently wear trousers to work. I have yet to be in a meeting in London where any of the men are wearing a dress. What’s going on here? Dresses are really comfortable, especially in the summer heat. For adland folk who were lucky enough to go to Cannes in the baking heat this year, a smart summer dress was a welcome wardrobe item. What a shame that only half the people present had the opportunity to take advantage of it. But, frankly, there was so much comment about certain individuals' wearing of shorts that I can see why men might not bother to move on from chinos.

More to the point, I would agree with Dame Donald that gender stereotyping starts at a very young age. The psychiatrist Anna Fels writes in the Harvard Business Review that in pre-school, boys are given more recognition and their confidence is boosted more than girls. She cites one study that found "all 15 of the teachers gave more attention to boys… They got both more physical and verbal rewards. Boys also received more direction from the teachers and were twice as likely as the girls to get individual instruction on how to do things."

Snatching Barbies away will do nothing. Taking a long hard look at how we treat girls and boys throughout their childhood is an urgent and necessary step for true gender equality in science and at work.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom

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