Making guys play with dolls won’t create an army of men working as carers

Let’s bring out the dolls. Toddlers playing via Daria Filimonova/Shutterstock

The equalities minister, Jo Swinson, has suggested that boys should be encouraged to play with dolls to make them more “nurturing and caring”. This is apparently in the hope that they will become more likely to work in the adult care sector when they grow up and help to avoid a predicted future shortage of professional carers.

Her comments suggest that boys are less caring than girls, that playing with dolls will make you more caring, and that being more caring will make you want to become a professional carer. If only fixing the problems in our caring professions were that simple.

Same tired rhetoric

The idea that boys need any training of this sort is buying into a popular stereotype that only girls are nurturing and caring. It is unfortunate that an equalities minister is seen to be emphasising such differences. Much has been written about the realities (or otherwise) of gender differences, demonstrating that where there are differences they are very small and that the differences within groups of females and males are much greater than any differences between them.

It has also been shown that almost all of the psychological “categories” to which the sexes tend to be assigned (girls are empathic, boys like science) are actually “dimensions”, with a wide range of scores, throughout which males and females are pretty equally spread. This includes empathy and “care orientation”. As American psychologists Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis put it: “Men and women are from earth” or, even better, gender differences are: “Black and white or shades of gray”.

What qualities a carer needs

But are too many boys lacking in the “right stuff” to be carers? A search of job description sites reveals an emphasis on patience and the fact that no academic qualifications are necessary. There is no clear definition of what qualities a carer needs.

More men needed. Male nurse via Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

But if we settle on “agreeableness and tendermindedness”, one of the big five personality traits, and “empathy”, there is some evidence of relevant differences between the genders in large populations of adults. But the effect sizes are small and the size of the differences vary across cultures. This flexibility would counteract the suggestion that traits such as empathy are biologically determined and that sex differences in empathic behaviour are related to fixed sex-differences in brain function.

Recent research found that although a group of girls rated themselves as more empathic than a group of boys, there were no sex differences in brain responses to animated clips of people being hurt. As these type of behavioural findings are almost invariably based on self-reported measures, we may be looking at an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here, with women and men aware of the different characteristics attributed to their particular gender and describing themselves accordingly.

Toys and careers

The question then falls to whether a choice or preference for a type of toy can affect a person’s eventual career choice. There has certainly been much criticism of the way in which the clear gender divide in toy marketing could contribute to the maintenance of sex or gender stereotypes which could in turn influence the types of careers that people feel are open to them.

Much of this criticism has been in the arena of overcoming the gender gap in science and maths subjects. The under-representation of women has been explicitly linked, among other things, to the lack of early experiences with construction toys such as LEGO, as opposed to a biological determinist view that poor spatial skills are linked to genetically determined brain differences.

Jo Swinson likened her suggestions about boys and dolls to these campaigns. But there is a well-defined profile of the type of specific cognitive skills that are needed in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. There is a considerable body of research that shows how these skills can be acquired, improved and maintained. The same does not appear to be true of the caring profession. The necessary, though ill-defined, skills appear to be much more in the domain of personality characteristics, where there is much less evidence of how experiences can alter somebody’s personality profile.

I am absolutely in favour of findings ways to encourage all children to be nurturing and caring and be responsible for other people’s well-being. It doesn’t have to be dolls – caring for an animal or tending a garden can have the same effect. If the shortage of professional carers is the problem, then a better solution for this government might be to address the absence of a decent career structure and the low rates of pay, rather than embark on a “grow-your-own” social engineering project.