Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, believes the wrong toys are holding back girls who might otherwise go on to develop an interest in science and engineering.
She also attacked schools for taking the “lazy” option of finding work experience placements for pupils that reinforce gender stereotypes.
Speaking before her inaugural address as the new president of the British Science Association (BSA), Donald said: “We need to change the way we think about boys and girls and what’s appropriate for them from a very early age.
"Does the choice of toys matter? I believe it does.
“We introduce social constructs by stereotyping what toys boys and girls receive from the earliest age.
"Girls toys are typically liable to lead to passivity, combing the hair of Barbie, for instance, not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano.”
Girls looking for work experience were also likely to find themselves in hairdressing salons while boys went to the “local garage”.
“This isn’t good for either sex,” said Donald.
She pointed out that her own field of physics was notorious for its lack of girl students.
Computing was even less popular with girls, but in psychology they were a “substantial majority”.
Notably girls from single-sex schools were two and a half times more likely to take A-level physics than those from mixed schools, the professor added.
A study about two years ago had shown that half of mixed schools in the UK did not send a single girl on to study physics A level.
“Organisations such as the CBI [Confederation of British Industry] are always highlighting the shortage of qualified students in Stem [science, technoloogy, engineering, mathematics] subjects and one way of addressing this would be to ensure that half the population doesn’t feel its not for them,” she added.