Walk down the aisle at your local toy store that houses Barbie, and you’re apt to see Mattel’s signature female toy dressed for all sorts of aspirational careers — from astronaut to entrepreneur. But do the job choices of the popular blonde influence girls that play with her? Two researchers wanted to answer this question.
Aurora Sherman of Oregon State University and Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz randomly assigned 37 girls between the ages of four and seven to play either with a Doctor Barbie, an identical Barbie in sexualized clothes, or a Mr. Potato Head doll for five minutes. Next, they presented the girls with pictures of the backgrounds to various occupations that did not feature any people in the image. One career depicted was gender neutral (restaurant worker), five were of jobs that a higher concentration of women work (librarian, daycare worker, teacher, nurse, and flight attendant), and five were of jobs that a higher percentage of men work (police officer, construction worker, pilot, doctor, and firefighter). After presenting each picture, the researchers asked the girls if they could do that job and if a boy could do that job.
The results, published in the journal Sex Roles, were startling: Girls that played with either Barbie (which had the same unrealistic body type, regardless of how she was dressed), saw fewer career options for themselves than boys. Girls who played with Mr. Potato Head saw about the same number of career options for themselves as boys. In an email that Sherman wrote to Megan Gannon of Live Science (a website featuring the latest in scientific news), she said, “One psychological theory indicates that adult women who are given cues of sexualization (through dress or pictures) perform worse on academic tasks. My co-author and I speculate that Barbie might work as the same kind of cue for girls, but more research is needed to fully test this speculation.”
Our guess is that now, a lot of parents are going to encourage their daughters to play with the goofy-looking spud instead of the trendy lady from Malibu.