Playing With Dolls Won't Keep Girls Out of Science

The diversion of girls away from science and technical careers starts young -- but how young? One scientist in the U.K. says that the toys we offer female children may affect the educational path they're on for the rest of their lives.

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Dame Athene Donald is a professor of physics at Cambridge University, and as such she's undoubtedly well-positioned to see how few female students are in college-level science classes. And Donald has a problem with the way we sell toys to girls.

While of course the professional bridge-trolls at the Daily Mail are trying to frame Donald's position as her wanting to slap dolls out of the hand of any girl she sees, the situation is a lot more nuanced than that. No one wants to rip Barbie out of a girl's hand and stomp her to plastic pieces (okay, maybe I want to do that just a little bit if it's "Math is Hard" Barbie), or enact a law where only building kits and chemistry sets can legally be given as birthday presents to little girls. But we should take a good hard look at how we sell toys to kids, and what we buy for them. And after we take that look, we should start doing a better job.

I do think Donald is dead wrong on one point: where she says that Barbie and similar toys encourage passive play. My Barbie doll, as well as my enormous fleet of My Little Pony, were the key players in some serious epic storytelling sagas. "Gusty and Cherries Jubilee Go to the Moon" was a favorite, as was "Doctor Lickety-Split Versus the Pony Plague." I played with dolls and ponies a lot as a girl, and I still managed to get a university degree in science, somehow. Girls who play with dolls are not destroying their precious science-brains, and giving a doll to a girl is not, on its own, enough to deter her from a rigorous technical career someday.

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The problem is when the doll is part of a larger pattern of how she's encouraged to play. If it's not just a doll, but no building sets, no learning toys, no books deemed "too hard" for her little brain, nothing not explicitly gendered with pink and purple and lace and hearts; if it's only being offered school internships in care work and STEM-free class schedules; if it's constantly being asked not to be too messy, too busy, too noisy. That stuff adds up, and right now it's adding up to a gender disparity in math and physics classrooms.

Dolls aren't bad for girls. In fact, while we're at it, let's get some dolls for the boys too, please. But there's a lot more to the world than dolls, and girls deserve access to all that, too.

(P.S. If there's an Experimental Physics Barbie on the market, please let me know so I can buy her for my kids.)

 

Image via © Sue Barr/Corbis

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