Think of your favourite childhood toys. What do they say about who you are today? Did you play with Barbie dolls? Were you into trucks? Did you throw make-believe tea parties? Or were Transformers more your style?
For years, parents have voiced concerns about the stark gender division in the toy aisles. Now manufacturers are taking note of their outcry. But rather than knock down gender walls, they have created a new space on the shelf, with toys that depict female characters in traditionally male-dominated roles. Lego's latest laboratory set comes with a cast of all-female scientist figurines, Disney's Doc McStuffins doll comes with her own stethoscope and medical bag, Mattel's new Entrepreneur Barbie is equipped with a smartphone, briefcase and tablet. And fledgling construction-kit-maker GoldieBlox features a fictional girl inventor and a mission "to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers."
But do toys actually influence a child's future? Can Lego encourage children to seek careers in science and engineering? Can Entrepreneur Barbie motivate girls to pursue executive roles? And why, for that matter, do toys even need jobs?
Ellen Kooijman, a Stockholm-based scientist who designed the new all-female "Lego Ideas Research Institute" set, remembers playing with Lego from the age of four. With their limitless combinations, the multicoloured bricks stimulated her creativity, spatial visualization and problem-solving abilities – skills, she says, that have translated well to her career as a geochemist.
But as Lego evolved from simple building blocks to specially themed sets, such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and the controversial, pastel-coloured Friends line marketed to girls, Kooijman, now 32, found that her own image was missing in her beloved childhood toy.
"I had noticed a lack of female mini-figures in interesting professions in the available Lego sets," she said in an e-mail, explaining her motivation to design and submit her own figurines to the Danish toy maker.
The resulting laboratory set, released this month, has become an instant hit, generating overwhelming applause from parents thrilled at seeing a deviation from stereotypes. It sold out almost immediately on Lego's online shop.
With its gunpowder-grey packaging, the all-female lab set stands out among the sea of pink toys. Kooijman says the main goal was to pique the interest of both girls and boys, though she adds: "Of course, if it also inspires girls to pursue a career in science that's great."
Increasing the presence of women in male-dominated fields obviously involves far more than having girls play with Lego and Doc McStuffins dolls. Nonetheless, toys and games may, in fact, have a greater role in shaping us than we might think.
In a recent study, Aurora Sherman, an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University, found that playing with Barbies can limit girls' career aspirations. Notably, it didn't matter whether it was a traditional "fashion" Barbie or a doctor Barbie from Mattel's modern-careers collection.
Sherman's research, involving 37 girls aged four to seven, showed the results were the same: Participants who played with the doll for as little as five minutes saw fewer career options for themselves than for boys. (In contrast, those who played with a Mrs. Potato Head doll felt they could do the same number of jobs as they thought boys could.)
"That was one of the things that surprised me about our data," Sherman says, noting she had expected a professional Barbie might encourage the girls in her study to have more expansive ideas about career choices.
Although her research did not test why the doctor Barbie failed to inspire her young participants, Sherman speculates the sexualized dimensions of the doll, its carefully crafted brand image, or some aspects of her getup (Doctor Barbie came in pink glittery jeans and a low-cut scrubs shirt) may override its professional persona.
According to Mattel, the original Barbie, which made its debut in 1959, was inspired by cutout paper dolls. But over the past 30 years, Sherman notes, toys have changed drastically, allowing for less open-ended play. Companies now promote the sale of single-use toys, with dolls and play sets depicting specific jobs or scenarios.
"I do think that Mattel is very slick and clever in paying some attention to parental desire for [inspirational] playthings for their girls," Sherman says. "What I am concerned about is whether the costuming actually does anything to provide a better role-model experience for girls."
Gender stereotypes seem to have a way of spilling over into child's play, regardless of parents' intentions. Larry Cohen, a Massachusetts-based psychologist and the author of Playful Parenting, is a proponent of letting boys and girls explore a range of toys and games. Yet he remembers finding his own daughter, around the age of five, pretending to be a princess in need of rescue.
"It was very funny because she was very confident and powerful, and her friend was a boy who was rather timid. And yet, they played where she was the damsel in distress … and he was the powerful, heroic, rescuing prince," Cohen recalls. "This was just the script they were given."
So how concerned should parents be if their children insist on playing to stereotype?
"I don't think it's an absolute disaster," Cohen says, noting that many successful, liberal-minded adults played with Barbies. His daughter, he adds, ended up majoring in gender studies. "But I think as parents, we can just help expand the possibilities."
Karen McKenna, co-author of Games2Careers: Career Success Is Child's Play, agrees parents probably needn't be too concerned if their daughters refuse to give up their dolls or their sons won't part with their action figures. In fact, she thinks they may be wise to pay close attention to – and even encourage – those interests.
McKenna believes individual children are naturally drawn to certain types of toys and games. Career counsellors, including herself, often rely on the Holland Code model, a system developed by the late U.S. psychologist John Holland that helps people identify suitable careers by categorizing them into six general interest groups. Those who are classified as "realistic," for instance, are practical and systematic and may like to build things, while those who are "social" are generous, patient and enjoy working in groups.
McKenna says these interests begin to emerge in toddlers, and tend to stay with people throughout their lives. A child who loves playing with puzzles, for example, would likely enjoy problem-solving as an adult, while a child who likes pretending to teach stuffed animals may very well enjoy a career that involves helping others, she says.
Although she recognizes that some toys do perpetuate gender stereotypes, she believes children have a knack for using whatever playthings are at their disposal to suit their own needs. "They'll find a way. They'll make up their own game, or they'll do something, create something themselves that will allow them to express that interest."