Barbie may have just had herself a diversity embracing make-over, but she’s still setting a bad example to young girls, says one leading scientist.
Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, argues that more thought should be given to the messages popular children’s toys are sending.
Speaking ahead of her inaugural address as the new president of the British Science Association (BSA), Donald says: "We need to change the way we think about boys and girls and what's appropriate for them from a very early age. Does the choice of toys matter? I believe it does.”
"We introduce social constructs by stereotyping what toys boys and girls receive from the earliest age. Girls toys are typically liable to lead to passivity - combing the hair of Barbie, for instance - not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano.”
“You can see that boys (toys) ads are dominated by power and battle whereas girls seem to be able to get through life on love and magic. I’m sorry, I don’t think that will get them very far and whereas I am no fan of battles the idea [of] active behaviours is to be encouraged.”
Professor Donald adds that even as young as four years old, girls are missing out on the opportunity to explore more diverse career options due to the way they’re encourage to play.
“If [girls] have never had the opportunity to take things to pieces and build them up again; if they have always just played with dolls and dolls in a stereotypically female situation, such as worrying about hairstyle or making tea, then how can they imagine themselves as engineers or chemists?”
The scientist, who studies the physics of biological systems, also takes aim at the way gender stereotypes are reinforced throughout the education system,.
Along with science and maths long being considered ‘male’ subjects and the arts more suitable for girls, she also takes issue with the kinds of work experience placements organised for students.
Branding the system ‘lazy’, Donald claims that all too often students are sent either to a hairdressing salon or to a local garage on placements, depending on their sex rather than career aspirations or interests.
Donald’s comments come as the Royal Society calls for an overhaul of the way the school curriculum is currently structured.
Rather than choosing subjects to study at GCSE level aged just 14, the scientific academy proposes that students in Britain undertake a baccalaureate-style exam at age 18 instead, which would encompass a diverse range of subjects.
“In this country, uniquely in the world, we do not make a good job of instructing children in the basics, particularly post-16,” says Donald.
“We require them to make decisions that will affect their whole future careers at an impossibly early age, typically around 14. It seems as if our society expects children at the height of adolescence to make these absolutely fundamental decisions when they are swayed by things of the moment, and by cultural and peer group pressures, never mind parents and teachers.”
The most recent studies show that girls make up just a fifth of students choosing to study sciences, particularly physics, beyond age 16, with the number of girls taking science subjects at A-level at its lowest in mixed sex schools.