"It’s very depressing to live in a time where it's easier to break an atom than a prejudice" these observations by Albert Einstein made over fifty years ago still ring true today as multinational organizations grapple with the reality of trying to reconfigure our biases towards each other through a plethora of training programs. But the more fundamental question is, where do these stereotypes originate and what can we do to stop them from taking root? In terms of gender stereotypes, the research is clear; by the age of five years, old children have clearly defined ideas of what constitutes gender. Carers, even teachers reinforce gender identities, most often through play Mattel, one of the most-established and far-reaching toy manufacturing companies has decided to tackle this issue head one with a new range of toys; Creatable World, a customizable doll kit, that is promoted with the slogan; "Let Toys Be Toys, So Kids Can Just Be Kids."
The Creatable World range provides children with the opportunity to create their customizable doll line offering endless combinations all in one box. The traditional model of dolls requires children to confirm their play to the image of the toy in the box. With the Creatable World, children have the opportunity to build a doll that reflects their interests. The kits allow children to adapt their dolls, changing gender, hair length, and clothing. While gender is a significant element in this product range, ethnicity is equally essential, and the doll kits are available in a variety of skin tones representing the diversity of the 150 countries where Mattel has a presence.
Evidence shows the impact of reinforcing gender stereotypes through play, however, the toy industry is still immersed in entrenched behaviors around gender.Furthermore research shows the effect on aspirations of young children, with girls opting out of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths subjects) and by the age of six girls less likely to think of themselves as brilliant.
At the age of five, many girls develop self-limiting beliefs and begin to think they're not as smart and capable as boys. Girl stop believing their gender can do or be anything.
Once girls opt-out research consistently shows, it becomes far more difficult for girls to re-engage with these areas both in terms of subject choices and career aspirations. The gender-segregation also has an impact of boys who are expected to conform to deeply-held views on what constitutes acceptable behavior, namely suppressing emotions and in doing so, creating the seed-bed for anxiety and broader mental health challenges.
For a company that has built its founding success on the creation of gendered toys; Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars, the stakes are high, not just to create toys that are relevant but also espouse the values of the company, purposeful play. In response to feedback that Barbie, the product that launched the business, was out of touch with modern families, CEO Richard Dickson and his team embarked on a mission to reconnect Barbie. Initially, this was achieved by changing her body shape. Dickson, however, wanted to go further and challenged his colleagues "We wanted to understand what made Barbie great, to begin with, she was an aspirational toy, and we wanted to recapture this emotion with Barbie." The next stage was the launch of a broader range of Barbie dolls to commemorate her sixtieth anniversary. Mattel introduced the Sheroes range of dolls representing a broad cross-section of female role models from Tennis Player Naomi Osaka to Adowa Aboah, Activist and Model to Australian Journalist, Ita Buttrose. The Sheroes range was extended to include pioneering women in space exploration, including Katherine Johnson. Dickson explains the impact of this range; " the career dolls provided the message to girls that 'You can do anything'." In conjunction, Mattel launched the 'Dream Gap' project based on research identifying how girls disengage from aspirational careers, the project provides resources for parents and carers on how to close the gap and works with numerous local projects across different countries.
Mattel has pushed the boundaries even further with the launch of Creatable World; providing doll kits for girls and boys. The toys create an opportunity for parents, carers, and educators to create opportunities to use different genders for roleplaying and have sensitive conversations with younger children around different elements of gender. Dickson emphasizes the step-change in the company as this new line represents a significant departure from the traditional range of toys that have built the Mattel brand; "The new brand, Creatable World is differentiated from Barbie, and it's important because it provides opportunities to have an important conversation about gender identity through play."
The launch of Creatable World is a significant step forward in helping children, parents, and educators to challenge the slide in stereotypes that become so deeply ingrained in childhood. Mattel's work is moving towards closing the Dream Gap for girls and in doing so, builds more balance and aspirations for girls to enter the field of science. The more diverse talent that comes to all areas of science will lead to innovation and new discoveries rather than fixing the stereotypes engendered during childhood. Now that's the vision, not a dream.