WHEN toy designers at Parker Brothers created a new board game called Careers for Girls, they gave preteen players six career choices: super mom, rock star, fashion designer, college graduate, school teacher, and animal doctor. They packaged the game in a hot-pink box, shipped it to toy stores, and waited for parents to add it to holiday shopping lists. But now the sweet jingle of cash registers is being interrupted by the harsh jangle of telephones. Professional women are calling to complain about the stereotypical career options offered to young girls in this ``Fame, Fortune, and Happiness game.'' Executives counter that the game is intended for ``entertainment purposes only,'' not as an exercise in consciousness-raising.
Parker Brothers is far from the only such offender at the toy store. Another board game, Milton Bradley's Sweet Valley High, offers girls ages 8 and up such anxiety-ridden questions as ``Which dream date will be yours?'' and ``Can you find your boyfriend in time for the big date?'' Western Publishing's Girl Talk Date Line poses equally inane questions for girls 10 and up: ``Will he or won't he?'' and ``Is it a date?''
This is hardly the toy store of the '90s that feminists envisioned in the '70s, when the women's movement was in its infancy and all forms of ``liberation'' seemed possible. By 1990, they assumed, toy supermarkets would be filled with gender-neutral toys. Equality would begin in the nursery, and children would be emancipated from the dolls-are-for-girls, trucks-are-for-boys school of ``correct'' play. Editors of Ms. magazine even included an article every December on ``Toys for Free Children,'' listing nonsexist toys.
Not all theories become reality. Wandering through the aisles of a toy emporium, a shopper today - at least one whose own offspring long ago outgrew Child World and Toys ``R'' Us - may be surprised by how little has changed. The division of sex roles, color-coded by gender, seems almost as wide as ever. Stacks of pink boxes for girls compete with mountains of blue boxes for boys.
Consider the aisle labeled ``Housekeeping Toys.'' Kitchen centers, sinks, and ovens typically picture angelic-looking girls with long blond hair, pink dresses, and pinafores. A line of products called Now You're Cooking! - described as ``unique kitchenware designed just for kids'' - portrays only girls on its cartons. Keebler's Hollow Tree Bake Shoppe shows a girl mixing the batter, a boy eating a cookie. Ditto for Tyco's Real Candy Maker, where a boy watches as a girl mixes. So much for role reversals.
A few aisles away, the ageless Barbie still reigns as queen of the doll department. Although Barbie supposedly became a career woman a few years back, don't expect dress-for-success suits here. Even her shapely pilot's uniform is shocking pink, its package labeled ``Pretty pilot changes into glamorous date.''
Nor do career images for women improve elsewhere in a toy store. A doctor kit still shows a boy as doctor and a girl as his patient. And if G.I. Joe has a female counterpart - a G.I. Jill to represent all the women serving on active duty in the Persian Gulf - she is nowhere to be found on these shelves. Among all the ``action figures'' lining a long wall, in fact, only the proverbial token woman exists - a Robocop named Anne Lewis, an ``ultra police S.W.A.T. specialist.''
A few heartening signs of progress do exist. Chemistry sets show both girls and boys with test tubes in hand. A Little Tykes Carry Along Tools set pictures a girl, as does a Texas Instruments Voyager headset computer. And a boy wields a Fisher-Price Magic Mini Vac.
Do color-coded toys lead to color-coded careers? Not necessarily. Presumably some of today's successful professional women once played with Barbie and toy kitchens. Role models take many forms. Parents and teachers, even television, exert a more profound influence than toys.
Yet toys do instruct, and childhood play fantasies can help inspire adult careers. They are the make-believe props for real lives. And how those real lives have been changing for women!
It's too late for this year, but it would be an early Christmas present under the tree if the $16-billion toy industry promised in '91 to invent playthings for daughters that reflect the progress their mothers have made as full-scale members of the work force.