Dr Barbie, nurse Ken: French toymakers to fight stereotypes

In this file photo taken July 25, 2018 Barbie dolls, made by Mattel, are displayed on a shelf at a Target store in San Rafael, California. — Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America pic via AFP
In this file photo taken July 25, 2018 Barbie dolls, made by Mattel, are displayed on a shelf at a Target store in San Rafael, California. — Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America pic via AFP

PARIS, Sept 25 — French toymakers signed a pact yesterday, three months before Christmas, to rid games and toys of gender stereotypes the government blames for keeping women out of maths and science careers.

The charter for a “balanced representation (of genders) in toys” was signed by the government, the FJP toy industry federation and the association of toy manufacturers.

Explaining the initiative, junior economy minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said many toys project an “insidious” message that discourages girls from pursuing careers as engineers or computer coders — fields perceived as more appropriate for their male counterparts.

“There are toys for girls that are generally very pink and generally very focused on domestic life, whereas toys for boys are generally themed around construction, space travel, and science and technology,” she told broadcaster RTL.

This message that jobs are gender-specific is hammered home from a young age, with the result that “very few women” enter science and technology, Pannier-Runacher lamented.

“If you go to a shop to buy a toy for your young niece or nephew, the first question is: ‘Is it for a girl or a boy?’ and not: ‘Do they like to play outside? Do they like to play construction games? Do they like to play at taking care of a baby?’,” she said.

This has the effect that girls, even though they tend to perform better than boys at maths and physics at school, are underrepresented in the sector as adults.

“Today, ten percent of coders are women, which means that 90 per cent of coders are men designing the algorithms of tomorrow,” said Pannier-Runacher.

At France’s national research centre, the CNRS, women represented just 38 percent of researchers in 2017, and less than a third of research managers. Women are more than half the French population.

Apart from changes in toy design, the charter also envisages that manufacturers will adapt the way their products are advertised.

And there will be retraining for toyshop attendants, so they can learn that “what is important is the potential of the child and what they love”, that “a baby in the arms of a small boy or a Meccano (building set) in the arms of a girl is also good,” said Pannier-Runacher.

Girls can be knights

“A little girl may not wish to be a princess. She might want to be a knight... and go to combat rather than being confined to a castle hosting her friends for tea,” the junior minister added.

Pannier-Runacher tweeted a picture of the new charter along with “you can be anything” Barbie dolls dressed as an astronaut and a robotics engineer.

Last year, Barbie-maker Mattel announced a campaign to teach young girls not to buy into sexist stereotypes.

It has given the decades-old doll known for her original impossible physique a number of metamorphoses in recent years, including as an engineer, a scientist and a mathematician.

The charter signed at the economy ministry does not envision sanctions for not complying, Pannier-Runacher said, but companies stand to receive a reputational boost if they do.

The FJP federation said in a statement it was committed to taking “measurable” steps towards boosting gender neutrality in toys.

Toys play a “fundamental” role in helping girls find their calling, added Florence Barnier, who heads the Elles Bougent (They Move) movement which seeks to boost the number of girls in the sciences.

“If we do not give science-themed toys to young girls, they will not be able to see themselves in these jobs,” she said. — AFP

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