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50 Shades of Pinkification: How Toys Define Girls’ Future Careers

As if Barbie didn’t already get enough flak for sullying the body images of millions of impressionable American girls, she’s now become yet another cultural culprit: Of girls’ career self-images.

Those mile-long pins, unattainably waifish waist, and hot-pink Corvette have sent a deeper, unconscious message  … that when we grow up to be women, many careers are equally unattainable for us.

Maybe it’s evolution’s punishment for starving brain cells of calories. Maybe it’s the term “airhead”. In 2010 Mattel felt compelled to doll Barbie up in a smart-looking outfit: Computer Engineer Barbie.

But according to an Oregon State University study on the effect of toys on girls age 4 to 7, that still has no dice. Because no matter which Barbie the test subjects played with, Doctor Barbie couldn’t hold a candle to Mrs. Potato Head.

When given the starchy toy (which Barbie, of course, would never eat) to play with, test subjects were asked about 10 careers they could picture themselves having when they grow up. The study’s results of toying with this un-sexualized spud? Nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and boys.

Probably because the wife of the Mister Potato Head gets to wear empowering, cleavage-free getups such as this:


But as we learned in the Doctor Barbie experiment results, maybe it’s not really just the clothes that make the woman. Nor is it just about the color pink.

It’s a whole bunch of other factors.

Toy Story: Bucking the pink trend

The past few years haven’t been forgiving for pink. Granted, ubiquitous pink wristbands continue to symbolize the war against breast cancer, and the wholly PINK-ified Victoria’s Secret continues its reign as a lingerie juggernaut. But that’s for adult women who have made their purchase choices independently (even if under hostage of approximately 23,153,876 marketing messages).

But when it comes to the young and impressionable, a new conscience has arisen: What are we doing giving our daughters, nieces, and friends pink everythings? Come Christmas and birthdays, the pink-and-blue aisle segregation has left consumers with zero choice to do otherwise.

This is what people began questioning when the now-viral video of bored girls fabricating an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine out of toys. As consumers, we are starting to re-think pink. And the beauty of capitalism is this: Just as retailers shape culture, so too does culture shape retail. As the backlash grows stronger, decision-makers start to re-think pink.

And … you guessed it: Young girls just might re-think the kind of roles they want to play when they grow up.

How women subconsciously pick occupation fields

While women are graduating from college in greater numbers than men, and relatively better off during this era of “mancessions,” there’s still a long way to go in getting them into STEM fields.

The Degrees in Demand widget features jobs that are federally classified as fast-growing. Quickly skim the options, and honestly ask yourself: Do my choices have anything to do with the kind of toys I played with growing up?

For example, hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists hold one of the pinkest of the pink careers, and even those in the upper range of the salary chart are expected to earn less than $50,000 a year. The positions of Elementary School Teachers, which are overwhelmingly filled by women, barely break the $50,000 income range.

Not all female-dominated occupations languish in the “pink ghetto,” however: Registered Nurses(which are over 90 percent female) enjoy a median salary of $65,470.

Unsurprisingly, Barbie has all the above jobs. But despite a resume that’s as long as her legs (over 125 jobs, to date), it has never included roles like logistician or marine engineer and naval architect.

According to the Census Bureau, just a quarter of women are working in STEM fields today. So even if her geeked out version is a Computer and Information Systems Managers earning well over six figures, she would be a minority among her best friend Midge – not to mention sisters Skipper, Stacie and Chelsea.

The math/science gender divide in the United States is among the highest in the world. But in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, the gender differences on science scores are as miniscule as, well, Barbie’s miniskirts.

Rethink pink: Once you go pink, can your daughter still think?

As the saying goes: “Once you go black, you can’t come back.” But if retail history is any indication, pinkwash may be intense but cyclical. Now that we’ve defined toys that are “unhealthy” for girls, the next question is: What toys are healthy for girls?

A new toy subculture is quick to answer: Goldie Blox started her yellow-packaged toys to inspire girls to explore engineering, and sells products (such as Frida Kahlo Plush dolls, indoor gardening kits, and “Frozen” DVDs), geared toward raising “smart, confident, and courageous girls.”

Just as our younger selves have dived into our mothers’ dressers to don brightly hued popular-again retro- era clothing (bet you never thought those dashikis would see the light of day again?), our children can also return to a more color-agnostic era.

Where Legos didn’t come with pink hair salons, and an 8-year-old girl can pick any color she wants. Like green, the color of an biomedical engineer’s salary. But as we Lean In (or try to), we can still play with our mothers’ neutral toys while enjoying with the choices they rarely had: Blending motherhood and a career.

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