A government minister has said that young boys should be encouraged to play with dolls to get them “to consider caring as a profession” when they are older.
Equalities Minister Jo Swinson, who has a 12 month old son, said there was a “huge shortage” of men working as carers and the toys children are given to play with when they are young can counter this, the Independent reports.
But her opinions go against scientific research which shows that boys and girls are predisposed to prefer certain toys, just as in later life they prefer different hobbies and opt for different subject choices to maximise their academic results.
The ongoing debate was the subject for an experiment by American psychologist Kim Wallen, who researched the behaviour of monkeys. Her findings, that male monkeys, like male humans, tend to play with cars and soldiers, could mean that there is a biological predisposition to certain toys.
The research, which was carried out in 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia, is just the sort of evidence which will enrage left wing MPs and pressure groups. But the evidence showed that when using a sample of 11 male and 23 female rhesus monkeys, in general the males preferred to play with wheeled toys over dolls while female monkeys played with both kinds of toys.
The conclusion that preferences are likely to be based on differences between the sexes rather than social factors was not mentioned by the equalities minister in the parliamentary debate.
Instead, she condemned the ‘stereotyping’ of children at an early age by marketing toys according to gender and said boys playing with dolls would help develop their “nurturing and caring” instincts as well as halting the behaviours which push men and women into different career paths.
She was joined in her argument by fellow Liberal Democrat Paul Burstow, who complained that 82 per cent of the caring profession were female and that young men did not consider jobs in that sector.
At the same time, Ms Swinson said, only seven per cent of British engineers were female and she believed young women should be encouraged to study science, technology, maths and engineering in order to “open their horizons, rather than being led by dated stereotypes about what girls can do”.
Last year, her colleague Jenny Willott said that women were being ‘forced’ into lower paid jobs such as nursing because of the toys they play with at an early age. “A boy who has never had a sewing kit might never discover his talent for design and a girl who has never had a Meccano set may never discover she has real potential as an engineer,” she said.
The debate is bound to open up the discussion over the marketing of toys specifically by sex. Fourteen major retailers, including Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s agreed to stop labelling them as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ following a campaign launched two years ago.
“When boys feel free to play with dolls, they do. But very often they aren’t offered them in the first place because the marketing is so powerful,” said Jess Day from the campaign group ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ campaign.
“Parents may never consider buying a doll for boys. And when boys grow older they will quickly pick up that some people don’t think it’s suitable for them.”
“It’s absurd to suggest that boys – even the most rumbustious ones – don’t have a caring and nurturing side,” she added.
Their comments are supported by Labour MP Chi Onwurah, who has previously argued it is “illegal to advertise a job as for men only but apparently fine to advertise a toy as for boys only”.
“Why should girls be brought up in an all-pink environment? It does not reflect the real world.”
When looking at the grades achieved by boys and girls in science GCSE it is clear that it is not for lack of opportunity that girls choose not to follow science based careers but is more likely to be down simply to personal choice.
Last year, boys were outperforming girls at Biology and Chemistry GCSE, according to results from the Joint Council for Qualifications, but the gap for Biology got 0.2 per cent smaller and the gap for Chemistry slightly wider. Meanwhile girls were doing better than boys at physics and that gap increased by 0.1 percentage points.
As much as it may upset politicians and lobbyists, it seems there could be a very simple explanation for why more boys study science and girls prefer subjects such as English Literature: personal preference. The availability of dolls or model pick up trucks are unlikely to determine the course of a child’s future career path.