An unexpected role model for girls. (Anne Farrar/The Washington Post)
Mrs. Potato Head mashes Barbie in empowerment test

In a psychology lab at Oregon State University, 37 girls ages 4 to 7 have finally demonstrated what feminists have long warned: Playing with Barbie dolls drives home cultural stereotypes about a woman’s place and suppresses a little girl’s career ambitions.

But here’s an unexpected though preliminary finding from the same experiment: Playing with Mrs. Potato Head appears to have the effect on little girls of attending a “Lean In” circle. After spending just five minutes with Jane Potato Head, girls believed they could grow up to do pretty much anything a boy could do.

Don’t be fooled by those career-girl Barbies dressed up as doctors, astronauts, politicians and ocean explorers. The authors of the study report that whether girls played with “Doctor Barbie” — decked out in a white coat and jeans with a sparkly applique — or “Fashion Barbie” — dressed in a form-fitting minidress and high heels — they were likely to judge themselves capable of plying, on average, 1.5 fewer occupations than a boy could. Those who played with Mrs. Potato Head foresaw basically the same range of career opportunities as boys did. (The researchers presented the girls with 10 jobs, half of them traditionally male-dominated and half traditionally female-dominated.)

“Although the marketing slogan suggest[s] that Barbie can ‘Be Anything,’ girls playing with Barbie appear to believe that there are more careers for boys than for themselves,” wrote authors and psychology professors Aurora M. Sherman of Oregon State University and Eileen L. Zurbriggen of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The results of this experiment were published last week in the journal Sex Roles.

(Catherine Lane/iStockphoto)