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Gender neutral parenting is a hippy-dippy idea but I’m glad my daughter isn’t into Barbie

PUBLISHED: 08:00 05 March 2017

Dolls have never really been popular with Ellen Widdup's daughter

Dolls have never really been popular with Ellen Widdup's daughter


My daughter has never been into dolls, writes Ellen Widdup.

When other little girls were cooing over Tiny Tears, she was making traffic jams with Micro Machines.

When Disney princesses monopolised the time of her friends, she was building rockets out of Lego bricks.

She had the odd Barbie. But she would strip them of their sequins and dress them up in Action Man’s overalls to man the toy garage.

Despite peer-pressure and pigeonholing, she has never been swayed from what she finds interesting. And for the best part of two years, this has been space. She now knows more about the planets, Solar System and Milky Way than I do.

This makes me extraordinarily proud. Not just because she is so engaged, interested and passionate about something. And not just because she shuns the typical tween mags for a subscription to National Geographic. But because she stands out from the crowd of pink princesses.

I never set out to bring up my children as gender neutral. In fact, I think that’s a wishy washy, hippy-dippy idea.

But I have always hated the stereotypes we see in toy marketing where action, construction and technology toys are predominantly marketed to boys while role play and arts and crafts are pitched at girls.

Research has shown that this can result in children believing there are certain jobs that are suitable for boys and girls - ideas that are hard to shake later on.

“Math class is tough!” Barbie once lamented, but while we have shot down such myths, the struggle to get girls into STEM subjects continues.

More than 50 years ago Dorothy Hodgkin was the first British woman scientist to win a Nobel Prize.

After the ceremony in which her work on crystallography was recognised, she said she would have preferred not to have had such a fuss made about her gender.

“The situation in which I find myself will, I very much hope, not be so uncommon in the future that it will require any comment or special treatment.”

And yet, half a century later, she remains the only female British scientist to have won this accolade.

The trouble is, while schools claim to be working harder to attract girls to science, they don’t appear to have the right formula.

Take the Carnegie Science Center in the US, for example.

It managed to illustrate the STEM gender gap so starkly that Marie Curie would be turning in her grave with a workshop for Girl Scouts about the science of beauty products.

The toy industry continues to perpetuate the idea that girls will only be interested in science if it’s tied up in ribbon too.

On her last birthday, my daughter requested a science kit. In a well-known toy shop, I was horrified to be pointed towards 
a Sparkle Science Set which taught you how to make a bath bomb.

Dressing up science shouldn’t be necessary. In fact, it’s belittling.

Look at Computer Engineer Barbie. Very on-trend. And yet the book to accompany her role was withdrawn in 2014 after a string of complaints because in it Barbie admits: “I’m only creating the design ideas. I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

Unfortunately, Barbie has never been about workplace equality or sending a positive message to girls.

She can have any job she wants, so long as she keeps her house clean, her hair blonde, and her waist small enough that no internal organs could fit comfortably in it.

To my daughter’s horror NASA collaborated with Mattel in 2013 to introduce Mars Explorer Barbie who was “ready to add her signature pink splash to the Red Planet.”

“How ridiculous,” my daughter said, pointing out her pink moon boots and cutesy back pack. “Nobody cares what you look like in space. Why didn’t they just make an action figure out of Helen Sharman?”

No, I didn’t recognise the name either. Which says it all really, since she was the first British astronaut and the first woman in space.

“A maiden voyage,” my daughter pointed out.

My daughter. The astronomer. The scientist. The explorer. A young woman who has more to offer the world than the kind of girl that fits into a Barbie-shaped box.

Find Ellen tweeting at @EllenWiddup or read last week’s column here

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