UK Education Minister Elizabeth Truss recently warned that gender-specific toys are failing to inspire girls to pursue careers in maths and the sciences.
According to the Office for National Statistics, women make up less than 20% of the combined science, research and engineering workforce and, according to young people’s career site Gothinkbig, only 12% of games developers are women.
Conversely, women fill nearly four fifths of admin and secretarial positions and dominate caring professions such as nursing.
So does the answer to gender-balanced professions lie in swapping Barbie dolls for Lego sets?
Research by online retailer Argos claims that there is a direct link between the toys children play with and their vocation. The study revealed that two thirds of people in maths related roles enjoyed playing with puzzles in their younger years.
One in ten parents surveyed also admitted to actively buying toys to encourage their child’s interest in a particular job.
A major study by UCL into the career aspirations of primary school children revealed that the majority of seven year old boys and girls interviewed chose jobs along traditionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ lines, with footballer the most popular profession for boys and teacher for girls.
The results suggest that children also develop ideas around what are ‘appropriate’ careers for boys and girls from a young age, which indicates that what they play with and how they play could be vital, at least to how they explore their options.
There is certainly growing fear amongst parents that stereotypical labelling of toys will limit their children’s ambitions and creativity.
As a result of successful campaigning from parent led group Let Toys be Toys, some major retailers such, as Boots and Tesco, have now stopped labelling toys by gender.
However, it may take more widespread action and some years to be able to accurately assess the influence of these campaigns on current generations of children.
And, whatever the potential influence of our childhood playthings, there are certainly other factors at play in the career decisions of men and women.
If we examine workforce gender divides more widely, we see that men still tend to dominate at the top across most professions. According to the ONS, men are more likely to be employed in higher skilled jobs than women and outnumber them in upper middle skilled roles by two to one in the UK.
Similarly, only 33% of senior management roles currently go to women across the EU.
As well as promoting constructive, gender-neutral play, perhaps more needs to be done to inspire women to reach the top of their professions and create the flexibility for working mothers to remain in authority roles, whatever their sector.
It may be time for Barbie to ditch the ball gowns and start power dressing too...