Toys aimed at girls 'steering women away from science careers'

Leading physicist Dame Athene Donald says toys aimed at girls emphasise passivity, and that early influences affect academic choices

Toys aimed at young girls are steering them away from science and engineering before they even reach school age, according to a leading British researcher.

Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University, said that toys marketed at girls often lead to passive play, instead of stoking the imagination and encouraging the children to develop more creative skills.

She also attacked schools for taking the “lazy” option of finding work experience placements for pupils that reinforce gender stereotypes. Girls looking for work experience were likely to find themselves in hairdressing salons while boys went to the local garage, she said.

Speaking ahead of her inaugural address as the new president of the British Science Association, Donald said: “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.”

Donald, who studies the physics of biological systems, said that children’s academic interests are set in motion long before they choose which subjects to study at A-level. Encouraging more into the sciences will help build an informed society that can make good decisions on issues as varied as vaccinations, mobile phone masts and climate change, she said.

“There are people who think what children do at four is irrelevant to their A-level choices, but I’m not so sure. The evidence suggests that many children make up their minds, certainly about what they don’t want to do, around the time they go to secondary school,” she is due to say in her address on Thursday. “If they 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?”

She goes on to contrast the wording used in adverts for toys aimed at boys and girls. Toys targeted at boys were described in terms of power and battles, while those marketed at girls emphasised love and magic. “Whereas I am no fan of battles, the idea that active behaviour is to be encouraged, as opposed to being passive and relying on magic to solve your problems, seems to me to be the real distinction between how things are being portrayed here for the genders,” she will say.

Donald’s own field of physics is notorious for its lack of female students, which account for only about a fifth of all those taking the subject at A-level. Research by the Institute of Physics has found that close to half of state co-educational schools do not send a single girl on to do physics A-level.

She backed the Royal Society’s call for a baccalaureate-style exam at age 18 that would encompass a diverse range of subjects including maths and science. “In this country, uniquely in the world, we do not make a good job of instructing children in the basics, particularly post-16,” she said. “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.”


Ian Sample Science editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Interview: Harriet Swain talks to prizewinning physicist Athene Donald

Athene Donald, the prizewinning physicist, tells Harriet Swain she has never let being the only woman in a room hold her back

Harriet Swain

13, Jan, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Why don't more girls study physics?
Almost half of Britain's co-ed schools have no female students taking A-level physics, but one London school is showing how it is possible to buck the trend, writes Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day

30, Dec, 2012 @12:01 AM

Article image
Girls with top science GCSEs 'deterred from study at higher level'
Low take-up of Stem subjects down to low confidence and boys’ dominance, study finds

Richard Adams Education editor

22, Aug, 2018 @3:06 PM

Article image
Physics at Work lets children into the world of science

Athene Donald: Exhibition in Cambridge offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with scientists

Athene Donald

18, Sep, 2012 @12:15 PM

Article image
The magic and wonder of science
I hated science as a child but have come to see that understanding it underpins the imagination, says Tim Lott

Tim Lott

29, Jun, 2013 @6:45 AM

Too few women at the top is not just a science problem

It's been 40 years since Britain's first and only woman Nobel prize winner. Why, asks Julia Higgins

Julia Higgins

12, Feb, 2004 @2:24 AM

Too few mothers return to science careers, report finds

Too many women in science and industry take career breaks and never return to their original jobs, according to a survey published today.

Rebecca Carver

28, Jul, 2004 @10:06 AM

Article image
Why science should be wooing women

Next month, Dame Julia Higgins, professor at Imperial College and vice-president of the Royal Society, chairs The 2004 Green Design Challenge for budding young female engineers. Polly Curtis meets the grande dame of science.

Polly Curtis

02, Jul, 2004 @1:56 PM

Women in science call for government action

Institutionalised sexism in the sciences should be tackled through government-backed support for women, according to one of Britain's top scientists, Lady Susan Greenfield.

Polly Curtis

10, Oct, 2002 @4:05 PM

Article image
Gender equality in science: it takes a village | @GrrlScientist
GrrlScientist: Late last year, a metastudy was published showing that, since 2000, things are improving for women working in most STEM-based fields, although there are some notable exceptions


17, Mar, 2015 @9:04 AM