A new Oregon State University study of girls study of girls ages 4 to 7 indicates there’s a link between girls who play with Barbie dolls and their subsequent view that they don’t have as many career options as do boys.
Aurora M. Sherman, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU, said the study joins a small but growing body of research looking at fashion dolls and the unintended messages they might send.
Findings of the research, conducted by Sherman with Eileen L. Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, were published Wednesday in the journal “Sex Roles.”
Sherman, the lead researcher of the study of 37 local school girls, indicated that playing with Barbie has an effect on girls’ ideas about their place in the world, Sherman said Wednesday. She also noted that playing with the doll seems to limit girls’ sense of what’s possible for their future.
“While it’s not a massive effect, it is a measurable and statistically significant effect,” she said.
The girls in the study were randomly assigned either a fashion Barbie, a Barbie dressed as a doctor, or a Mrs. Potato Head. They spent five to 10 minutes playing with their assigned doll. After play sessions, the girls were asked questions about which jobs they could do, and which jobs they thought boys could do.
Sherman said the researchers used U.S. Census data to form a list of 10 professions, half of which are statistically dominated by men — such as construction worker and airline pilot — and half of which are dominated by women, such as librarian and teacher.
The study found that girls who played with either type of Barbie had a reduction in the number of occupations that they saw as possibilities for themselves.
Sherman said she was surprised by how large the difference was between the career possibilities that girls who played with Barbie dolls envisioned for themselves compared with the career outlook of girls who’d played with the less-sexualized Mrs. Potato Head Dolls.
Sherman added that she also was surprised that there was no difference between results from girls who played with the career-oriented Barbie and the fashion Barbie.
Sherman said the amount of research about the messages sent by fashion dolls such as Barbies is growing.
She is working on two other studies in the area — one that looks at how different toys affect the value that young girls place on thinness, and another that examines how sexualized and non-sexualized dolls affect girls’ academic performance.
Sherman said she doesn’t think parents should throw out Barbie dolls, but rather that their children, regardless of gender, should be offered a variety of toys, including puzzles and games.
“Forbidding things (just) makes them more attractive,” she said.
Barbie dolls have attracted many controversial observations since the first one was introduced in 1959 — and almost immediately drew criticism from people who saw it as too sexual to be a suitable toy for young girls because of its unusually wasp-waisted, big-busted and leggy appearance.
A message left Wednesday at Mattel Inc. headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., seeking comment on the study, wasn’t returned by close of business.