Professor touts ‘geeky’ Barbies to fight ‘masculine culture’ of STEM

Toni Airaksinen, Campus Reform

  • A University of Washington-Seattle professor thinks “geeky” Barbies are the key to overturning the “masculine culture” in STEM disciplines.
  • Sapna Cheryan, the director of UW’s Stereotypes, Identity, and Belonging Lab, believes that “a perceived masculine culture” is the reason for the persistent gender gap in STEM, and that toys can be used to counter that perception.

A University of Washington-Seattle professor thinks “geeky” Barbies are the key to overturning the “masculine culture” in STEM disciplines.

Sapna Cheryan, who teaches psychology classes and serves as director of the UW Stereotypes, Identity, and Belonging Lab, was recently named to the prestigious Global Barbie Advisory Council, where she will serve as one of 12 individuals selected to “help inform and refine Barbie brand initiatives,” according to a UW press release.

To Cheryan, who has researched the impact of stereotypes on women for much of her career, the position is an opportunity to put her research findings in action.

“If there’s a way to influence children, it’s through a toy,” Cheryan told UW News. “Toys are really important. The first way kids get experience with different fields is through toys, like a toy microscope. But the toy market is very gender-segregated. Physics toys and dinosaurs are still seen as boys toys.”

Though the brand has been making efforts to diversify the dolls in recent years, the effort hasn’t been without hiccups.

Mattel faced severe backlash in 2014 over the book Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, as customers balked at the part in the storyline during which Barbie asks for help from male friends Brian and Steve. The 2016 Scientist Barbie—now out of production—was likewise criticized for wearing high heels and a short skirt.

Speaking to Campus Reform, Cheryan said she hopes to help Mattel design Barbies that will ultimately help to reduce the gender gap in STEM by exposing young girls to the notion of female scientists.

“Media and role models [can help] broaden the image of STEM so that more girls and women enter,” she explained. “I am hoping to use my knowledge of why gender gaps exist, where they are most prevalent, and how we can decrease disparities to guide Mattel on how they can best empower girls and reduce gender gaps.”

Though researchers have proposed myriad theories for why women are underrepresented in STEM over the past few decades, Cheryan believes she has pinned it down to just two factors.

According to her research, “the two main causes are one, a perceived masculine culture, and two, a lack of mandatory pre-college courses,” said Cheryan, adding that when both factors are present, gender disparities in STEM arise.

When asked whether innate sex differences could also be a factor, Cheryan dismissed the notion.

“I think there are a lot of fields that women are in that are thing-oriented (chemistry, math) and a lot of thing-oriented fields in other countries that are gender balanced…so my sense is that if there are biological differences in that, it is not playing a big role in explaining current patterns,” she told Campus Reform.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen


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