Barbie, the robotics engineer: French toymakers pledge to fight stereotypes

The Guardian 1 month ago

French toymakers have signed a pact 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 French Federation of Toy and Childcare Industries (FJP) and the association of toy manufacturers.

Explaining the initiative, the junior economy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said many toys projected an “insidious” message that discouraged 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 the broadcaster RTL.

The 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 said.

“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 had resulted in girls, despite tending to outperform boys at maths and physics in school, being underrepresented in the sectors as adults.

“Today, 10% of coders are women, which means that 90% of coders are men designing the algorithms of tomorrow,” said Pannier-Runacher.

At France’s national research centre, the CNRS, women made up just 38% 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 manufacturers adapting the way their products are advertised.

There will be training 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.

“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.”

She tweeted a picture of the new charter along with Barbie dolls dressed as an astronaut and a robotics engineer.

Barbie-maker Mattel has given the decades-old doll 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.

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