Thursday, March 6th, 2014
Well, let’s take this one step at a time.
What Did This Study Do?
From the press release:
Girls ages 4 to 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie with dress and high-heeled shoes; a career Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope; or a Mrs. Potato Head with accessories such as purses and shoes. Mrs. Potato Head was selected as a neutral doll because the toy is similar in color and texture, but doesn’t have the sexualized characteristics of Barbie.
After a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers were traditionally male-dominated and half were female-dominated.
One important thing to keep in mind: a total of 37 girls were studied.
What Did This Study Find?
Again, from the press release:
Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.
There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.
What Was The Conclusion From This Study?
Once more, from the press release:
Childhood development is complex, and playing with one toy isn’t likely to alter a child’s career aspirations … But toys such as dolls or action figures can influence a child’s ideas about their future …
What Is The Take-Home Message From This Study?
Well, much less than the headline “Playing with Barbie dolls can limit girls career choices, study shows” might imply. The conclusion summarized above is a reasonable perspective. But let’s face it – this study is quite limited in scope. Only 37 girls were studied and they were distributed in age between 4 and 7 years old. This is hardly a platform for making inferences about the impact of playing with Barbie. To do that properly (and I admit I come from a tradition of epidemiological research which can have pretty rigorous standards), we would want to see a few things. Some that immediately come to mind include:
- a much larger sample, ideally one that would be shown to be somewhat representative of a specified community (e.g., a given region of the country, so that we have more confidence in the statistical estimates)
- more attention to potential factors that could influence how the girls responded (e.g., Are there differences by age? Level of media exposure? Prior level of conceptions of sex roles and stereotyping?)
- additional determination of how long the effect lasted (e.g., retesting 30 minutes later; 2 days later; 1 week later)
- more naturalistic studies that examined what toys the girls played with in their home environment (e.g., Did it make a difference that the experimenters gave the girls the toys?)
- inclusion of boys
- replication of the findings
These are just some ideas to think about. Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the study. It was published in a peer review journal. There may be something to the results. But from the scientific perspective the study gets the ball rolling – and much more research would need to be done before we are anywhere close to making bigger inferences.
This is, admittedly, a pet peeve of mine. I don’t like headline “teasers” for research that is in an early stage. Frankly, I don’t like the idea that every study that gets published warrants a press release. Sometimes a study can serve as a platform for discussion, but I think we need to be much more conservative when we use the words “study shows“ because of the inference it carries. It’s a long way from 5 minutes in a laboratory to the real world.
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