Gender

How Playing with Barbies Can Stunt Girls’ Career Aspirations

New study suggests playing with Barbie "creates a limit on the sense of what’s possible for their future."

Photo Credit: By http://www.flickr.com/photos/29759986@N03/ [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What are our children learning from the toys they play with? If that toy is a Barbie doll, the answer isn’t pretty.

A new study by researchers at Oregon State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz has found that girls who play with Barbies believe they have fewer career options available to them than boys do.

The authors, Aurora M. Sherman of OSU and Eileen L. Zurbriggen of UCSC, published an article about their findings, titled “Boys Can Be Anything: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls' Career Cognitions," on March 5 in the Springer journal Sex Roles.

“Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls’ ideas about their place in the world,” Sherman said in a March 5 press release on OSU’s website. “It creates a limit on the sense of what’s possible for their future. While it’s not a massive effect, it is a measurable and statistically significant effect.”

The highly sexualized doll has been the center of many a controversy since her introduction in 1959, but more so in recent years as the Barbie image continues to be debunked. It has been shown that if she were a real woman, Barbie would have to walk on all fours due to her unrealistic figure. (Worth noting: a doll designer named Nickolay Lamm has designed a “normal” looking Barbie, whose body proportions reflect those of an average 19-year-old female. The doll will be available soon.) The issue is further explored in a recent study by Rehabs.com about Barbie’s Unrealistic Body Proportions. Most recently, the child’s toy graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, raising questions about the implications of putting a toy meant for young girls in a magazine for grown men—not to mention a toy the makers have tried very hard to position as a positive role model.

Sherman and Zurbriggen’s experiment was among the first to focus on how the doll impacts girls’ expectations for careers, rather than focus on body image. It also used a variable—which toy each child played with—whereas most past Barbie-related studies have observed the use of Barbie in a natural play setting. The study aimed to determine if the doll teaches gender norms that children emulate, a process known as gender role socialization.

The article’s abstract opens with the following explanation: 

“Play with Barbie dolls is an understudied source of gendered socialization that may convey a sexualized adult world to young girls. Early exposure to sexualized images may have unintended consequences in the form of perceived limitations on future selves.”

The researchers randomly assigned 37 girls between the ages of 4 and 7 one of three toys—a doctor Barbie, fashion Barbie, or Mrs. Potato Head, which they played with for five minutes. The girls were then asked how many of 10 different occupations they could do and how many boys could do when they grow up.

The results were disheartening: “Averaged across condition, girls reported that boys could do significantly more occupations than they could themselves, especially when considering male-dominated careers,” reads the abstract. “In addition, girls’ ideas about careers for themselves compared to careers for boys interacted with condition, such that girls who played with Barbie indicated that they had fewer future career options than boys, whereas girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported a smaller difference between future possible careers for themselves as compared to boys.”

Interestingly, the girls who played with Barbie dolls had lower career expectations no matter what the Barbie was wearing, suggesting a career-oriented outfit does not lead to a more positive self-image for the doll’s user.

“Perhaps Barbie can ‘Be Anything’ as the advertising for this doll suggests," Sherman wrote in a press release on UCSC’s website. "But girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves."

"It's sobering that a few minutes of play with Barbie had an immediate impact on the number of careers that girls saw as possible for themselves,” said Zurbriggen. "And it didn't matter whether Barbie was dressed as a model or as a pediatrician, suggesting that the doll's sexualized shape and appearance might trump whatever accessories are packaged with her.”

Elizabeth Limbach is a journalist based in Santa Cruz, California.