By Tharuni Jayaraman
In a recent study that has created some buzz (The Guardian, The Boston Globe, and The Atlantic), researchers Aurora Sherman and Eileen Zurbriggen investigated whether playing with a Barbie doll for just five minutes could affect a girl’s belief in the type of career she could pursue.
To test their hypothesis, they recruited a pool of 37 girls between the ages of four and seven. 59% of the girls studied had at least one Barbie doll at home and 57% reported having two or more, while 41% of them had never played with a Barbie doll before. (A 1999 study found that 99% of girls between the ages of three and ten owned at least one Barbie doll — perhaps times really have changed.)
Each girl was randomly assigned to play with one of three toys: Mrs. Potato Head (the control condition), Doctor Barbie, and Fashion Barbie. The researchers selected Mrs. Potato Head as the control condition because:
Mrs. Potato Head is lacking in sexualization cues, thereby allowing us to vary sexualization while holding other elements constant. Mrs. Potato Head is similar to Barbie in the color and texture of plastic that makes up the doll, is a feminine doll with a well-known female persona, and is marketed with clothing and accessories similar to Barbie.
The Doctor Barbie was dressed in “tight fitting blue jeans embedded with pink glitter strands, a scrubs style V-neck shirt printed with rubber ducks, a white lab boast imprinted with Barbie in pink, and pink low-heeled shoes.” The Fashion Barbie was dressed in “a knee-length, form-fitting, low V-cut, short-sleeved pink dress with black overlay and accessories.” Mrs. Potato Head “was presented to participants with one set of eyes, ears, and mouth attached, with other eyes, ears, and accessories available for play.”
Each girl played with her assigned doll for five minutes. The experimenter then presented the girl with ten color photographs that represented different occupations, equally split between male-dominated and female-dominated occupations. For each photograph, the experimenter asked the girl “Could you do this job when you grow up?” and “Could a boy do this job when he grows up?”
The researchers’ main hypothesis — that the girls who played with Barbie dolls would respond that fewer occupations are available to them relative to the girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head — was not statistically supported by the evidence.
Then things got interesting. The responses showed that all of the girls in the study believed that they had fewer career options than boys. Even more disturbingly, the differences in responses between girls who played with the Barbie dolls versus those who played with Mrs. Potato Head was telling:
[G]irls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many occupations as possibilities for themselves as they reported were possibilities for boys. In contrast, the girls who played with one of the two Barbie dolls reported about 1.5 fewer occupations [out of 10] as possibilities for themselves than they reported as possibilities for boys. Playing with a Barbie doll appeared to modify our participants’ career cognitions such that they saw fewer future opportunities for themselves (but not for boys).
So, where does this leave us? Well, Sherman and Zurbriggen are hoping that their paper is not the final word on this issue. Instead, they write:
[W]e hope this first study will spark additional contributions in this area.
And, so do I.
(If you are interested in the topic, I recommend reading the study itself. It’s accessibly written, and quite frankly, a 600-word blog post doesn’t quite do it justice.)