"Once it's in the home, dads would very much be able to join in this play that otherwise they might feel is not their territory," said Dr. Maureen O'Brien, a psychologist who consulted on the new Barbie set.
Consumer surveys show that men are increasingly making the buying decisions for families, reflecting the growth in two-income households and those in which the women work and the men stay home. One-fifth of fathers with preschool-age children and working wives said they were the primary caretaker in 2010, according to the latest Census Bureau data. And 37.6 percent of working wives earned more than their husbands in 2011, up from 30.7 percent 10 years earlier.
"Kids are going to grow up with dads that give them baths and drive them to soccer and are cutting up oranges for team snacks," said Liz Ross, president for North America of BPN, part of the IPG Mediabrands holding company, which recently completed a study on male consumers. "What will go away, albeit slowly, is the image or the perception of the befuddled dad."
The change is having consequences beyond toys. Consumer products have traditionally been marketed to appeal to women, and stores have been designed for women's sensibilities. Now, some brands and stores are catering directly to male decision-makers. Sears is reorganizing stores to put tools next to work wear, for instance, based on men's preferences. Procter & Gamble is working on men's grooming aisles at top retailers, a nod to the fact that women are no longer choosing shampoos or shaving creams for their husbands. With the selling point that it helps girls develop spatial reasoning, the Barbie set, a joint effort of Mattel and the toy company Mega Bloks, is also meant to pique fathers' interest.
"Dad is a bigger influencer in terms of toy purchases over all, and this sets up well for that, because the construction category is something Dad grew up with and definitely has strong feelings and emotions about," said Vic Bertrand, chief innovation officer of Mega Brands, Mega Bloks' parent company.
Construction sets for girls are a speedy growth category, thanks to Lego's introduction of its Friends line in January. Despite criticism that those sets were sexist — themes include a beauty shop and a fashion studio — Lego's chief executive said in August that the company sold twice as many of the sets in the first half of the year as it had expected, and retailers like Amazon and Target have named them hot holiday toys. (Read More: Hot Holiday Toys)
Anne Marie Kehoe, vice president of toys for Walmart U.S., said that, with the Barbie addition, construction toys aimed at girls will represent about 20 percent of the toy construction category by the end of this year, while last year there were just a handful of products.
Research shows that playing with blocks, puzzles and construction toys helps children with spatial development, said Dr. Susan C. Levine, chairwoman of the psychology department at the University of Chicago and co-principal investigator at the National Science Foundation's Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center. Even controlling for other skills such as verbal and numerical skills, she said, children with better spatial thinking are more likely to eventually go into mathematics, engineering, science and technology.