Barbie should expand her range of medical, scientific professions: BMJ study

The popular line of dolls lacks diversity and fails to represent disability, adds the study

Representative image of the popular fashion doll, Barbie (Photo: DW)
Representative image of the popular fashion doll, Barbie (Photo: DW)


Popular fashion doll, Barbie, should consider expanding her medical and scientific careers into areas where women and other under-represented groups remain a minority, suggests a study published in BMJ.

Barbie has been everything from a construction worker, teacher, and veterinarian to a judge, scientist, and medical doctor, symbolising careers that children can aspire to one day hold.

However, no previous studies have analyzed Barbie medical professional and scientist dolls to determine the kinds of professions they hold and their professional accuracy.

Katherine Klamer, a researcher at Indiana University, US, set out to identify the kinds of medical and scientific fields that Barbie dolls worked in compared with other career dolls and to determine whether they met clinical and laboratory safety standards.

"For young girls' sakes as much as her own, Barbie must keep shattering glass ceilings,” Klamer said.

The findings are based on an analysis of 92 Barbie brand career dolls (53 doctors, 10 scientists, two science educators, 15 nurses, 11 dentists, and one paramedic).

These were compared with a group of 65 non-Barbie brand career dolls (26 doctors, 27 scientists, seven nurses, two dentists, two engineers, and one MRI technician).

Doll careers were identified by visually analysing clothing, accessories, and packaging, and their personal safety accessories were assessed according to Indiana University guidelines.

Barbie brand career dolls were overwhelmingly depicted as adult (98 per cent), female (93 per cent), and white (59 per cent) and no doll was depicted as having a visible disability. Of the comparison dolls, 32 per cent were white and one doll had a prosthetic arm.

Barbie brand medical professional dolls largely treated children (66 per cent), with only three dolls (4 per cent) depicted working with adult patients, the researcher said.

Other than three ophthalmologist dolls, all Barbie brand doctor dolls appeared to have either no specialty or were pediatricians with no apparent subspecialty.

Barbie brand dolls often came with items, such as laboratory coats, microscopes, stethoscopes, and glasses. However, no doll fully met professional safety standards for their respective fields.

For example, 98 per cent of the Barbie brand doctor dolls came with stethoscopes, but only 4 per cent had face masks and none had disposable gloves.

The study found that over two-thirds of Barbie brand female medical professional and scientist dolls also wore loose hair, and more than half wore high-heeled shoes, even in settings where this would be discouraged or actively prohibited for safety reasons.

Of the 12 scientist Barbie brand dolls, none met all proper personal protective equipment requirements related to hair and clothing, according to the research.

While comparison dolls offered a wider range of age and ethnic groups than the Barbie doll group did, the dolls similarly struggled to portray a wide range of medical and scientific subfields and most comparison dolls did not wear proper personal protective equipment.

The author acknowledges that no in-depth statistical analysis was used, and while every effort was made to include as many medical professional and laboratory scientist dolls as possible, some dolls may have been overlooked. 

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