Barbie should be put back in her box to make way for more “creative” toys such as Lego and Meccano that are traditionally given to boys, one of Britain’s top women scientists says.
Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, believes the wrong toys are holding back girls who might otherwise go on to develop an interest in science and engineering.
She also attacked schools for taking the “lazy” option of finding work experience placements for pupils that reinforce gender stereotypes.
Speaking before her inaugural address as the new president of the British Science Association, Dame Athene 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.”
Girls looking for work experience were also likely to find themselves in hairdressing salons while boys went to the “local garage”.
“This isn’t good for either sex,” said Dame Athene.
She pointed out that her own field of physics was notorious for its lack of girl students, who accounted for only about a fifth of all those taking the subject at top levels.
Computing was even less popular with girls – but in psychology they were a “substantial majority”.
Notably, girls from single-sex schools were two and a half times more likely to take A level physics than those from mixed schools, the professor added.
A study about two years ago had shown that half of mixed schools in the UK did not send a single girl on to study physics A level.
“If teachers and parents, peers and the media give the message to the teenage girl that physics and engineering are subjects for boys and men we should not be surprised,” said Dame Athene.
But she stressed that a lack of science education was by no means confined to women. It appeared to be culturally acceptable in a way that ignorance about the arts was not.
“If a politician says I can’t do maths, no-one thinks, philistine,” said Dame Athene. “If they admitted to never having read any Shakespeare or Dickens, the attitude would be very different.”