Barbie doll encouraging girls to become engineers sparks sexism row

A young girl plays with a Mattel Inc. Barbie doll in Tiskilwa, Illinois, US on July 1, 2015.
A young girl plays with a Mattel Inc. Barbie doll in Tiskilwa, Illinois, US on July 1, 2015.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new Barbie doll which is meant to encourage girls to become engineers by building household appliances has sparked a sexism row with critics saying it promotes gender stereotypes.

The toy set, sold by toymaker Thames & Kosmos, includes a doll dressed in a lab coat over a mini skirt and plastic accessories to build a closet, washing machine, rack for shoes and jewellery, and other domestic appliances.

Critics were quick to point out that while there was a need to encourage girls to go into science, technology, engineering and research (Stem), the toy set reinforced stereotypes that consign women and girls to household chores.

"It's not a bad thing to encourage more girls to be interested in science and technology roles," said Jo Jowers, spokeswoman for Let Toys be Toys, which campaigns against marketing toys just for girls or boys.

"It's unfortunate there is a perception this encouragement always has to be through the filter of pink toys or things associated with women's traditional roles in the household or society," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Even though the number of women involved in Stem has significantly increased in recent years, they are still under-represented in science, accounting for only about 30 per cent of the world's researchers, the UN cultural agency Unesco says.

Girlguiding, a UK-based charity, said too often girls see dolls dressed in clothes not designed for adventure but typecast according to their gender.

"We know that this barrage of stereotyped representations negatively impacts girls' dreams for their futures," the charity said. "It's unsurprising that just six per cent of girls age seven to 10 say they would choose a career as a scientist."

Thames & Kosmos defended "Barbie Stem Kit", which is targeted at girls aged between four and eight, saying it contained several items children would expect to find in a home.

"The kit contains seven different experiments including a greenhouse with integral fan to prevent plants from wilting to building a mechanical washing machine from scratch, all of which reinforce a number of key Stem skills," the company said in a statement.