We need more Barbie doctors and scientists, study says


Barbie, the iconic fashion doll, could play a transformative role in diversifying medical and scientific careers, according to a study published in The BMJ’s Christmas issue. While Barbie has donned various professions, including construction worker, teacher, and veterinarian, this study breaks new ground by scrutinizing the professional accuracy of Barbie medical professional and scientist dolls.

Lead researcher Katherine Klamer embarked on a mission to identify the range of medical and scientific fields represented by Barbie dolls, compare them with other career dolls, and assess their adherence to clinical and laboratory safety standards.

The study analyzed 92 Barbie brand career dolls, encompassing 53 doctors, 10 scientists, 2 science educators, 15 nurses, 11 dentists, and 1 paramedic. A comparison group of 65 non-Barbie brand career dolls, including 26 doctors, 27 scientists, 7 nurses, 2 dentists, 2 engineers, and 1 MRI technician, was also examined. The evaluation took place from July to November 2023, involving visual analysis of clothing, accessories, packaging, and adherence to safety guidelines.

The findings revealed that Barbie brand medical professional dolls were predominantly adult (98%), female (93%), and white (59%), with none depicting visible disabilities. In contrast, the comparison dolls included more diversity, with 32% being white, and one doll having a prosthetic arm.

Barbie brand doctor dolls, except for three ophthalmologists, appeared to lack specialties or were depicted as pediatricians without subspecialties. The study highlighted the dolls’ tendency to treat children (66%) rather than adult patients (4%). Moreover, the dolls often featured accessories like laboratory coats, microscopes, stethoscopes, and glasses, but failed to meet professional safety standards. For example, 98% of Barbie brand doctor dolls included stethoscopes, but only 4% had face masks, and none had disposable gloves.

A doctor checks out a patient’s scalp. (credit: MAARIV)

Notably, more than two-thirds of Barbie brand female medical professional and scientist dolls wore loose hair, while over half wore high-heeled shoes, disregarding safety guidelines.

Although the comparison dolls portrayed a wider range of age and ethnic groups, they struggled to represent diverse medical and scientific subfields and frequently lacked proper personal protective equipment.

Dolls play a crucial role in inspiring future professionals

Despite potential oversights in the study, Klamer emphasized the crucial role of themed dolls in inspiring future medical professionals and scientists. She urged toy companies, including Barbie, to create more accurate and professionally diverse dolls.

In a linked editorial, surgeons Sareh Parangi and colleagues echoed Klamer’s call, emphasizing the importance of diverse representation in medical and scientific professions. They highlighted the persistent discouragement faced by female medical students in pursuing surgical careers and suggested that dolls like neurosurgeon Barbie or trauma surgeon Barbie could challenge sexist career assumptions.

Encouraging an expanded line of diverse Barbies, the authors envisioned dolls that inspire young girls’ views of surgeons and scientists. They extended an offer to advise Mattel on creating a realistic and fun surgeon Barbie. The editorial concluded, “With an expanded line, Barbies can be inspirational to young girls’ views of surgeons and scientists, rather than allowing these careers to be aspirational.”