Gender Progress Ends Where Pinkification Starts

Boys and girls inhabit two separate worlds, whose boundaries are created by the relentless onslaught of commercialism. The toy industry didn’t create gender segregation, but it certainly perpetuates and reinforces it by planting a link between gender and career choice in the minds of young children. The messages sent to toddlers through colours, wording, and images remain the same across the board: while girls are encouraged to focus on their appearance and partake in nurturing activities, boys are steered towards more active pursuits. Let Toys Be Toys, a UK-based lobbying group, is advocating label-free marketing and sorting according to themes and interests rather than gender. Created in 2012 by a group of parents galled by the stereotyping of children’s toys, the grassroots movement has already persuaded numerous retailers, including Boots and Tesco, to change their toy marketing. Let Toys Be Toys campaigner Joanne Watts sheds some light on the group, its goals, and the challenges that remain.

Toys are at the centre of children’s learning and education because they encourage the use of their imaginations and develop their skills. However, the aptitudes promoted by girls’ toys hold women back from the traditionally masculine domains, while boys’ toys rarely support the same sense of cooperation, and perpetuate the ‘boys don’t cry’ culture. Girls are being left out of all toys fostering mathematical and problem-solving skills, such as Lego and mechanical sets. The solely passive and decorative role towards which girls are pushed through toy marketing is out of phase with social and familial structures moving toward a more egalitarian era. In the bluish world of guns and trucks, those who are destined to become future fathers aren’t offered the opportunity to practice nurturing, domesticity, and emotional literacy.

According to Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, children actively internalise gender roles foisted on them by society by the age of three, and realise a few years later that these roles may be permanent. By the teenage years, children have already been affected by labels, both in terms of what they consider to be suitable career choices, and in gaining skills necessary to attain certain professions. A recent study published in Stereotype Threat Among Schoolgirls in Quasi-Ordinary Classroom Circumstances by Pascal Huguet and Isabelle Regner shows the extent to which negative stereotypes about girls’ scientific aptitudes impact their performance and their self-confidence in typically masculine domains. Middle school girls and boys were asked to perform a task that was characterised either as ‘geometry’ or ‘memory’. Girls performed better than boys when they believed that it was a memory task, but worse when they thought it to be geometry. The stereotyping of girls’ aptitudes is thus adding to inequalities in careers in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

It is difficult to help teenagers make career choices independent from gender stereotypes, but as parents, we should encourage our children to look at a whole range of careers. I recently went to a science workshop where children and adults were asked to draw a picture of what they thought a scientist looked like. Predictably, both adults and children drew men. The organizers had anticipated this and went on to show pictures of women scientists. I can only hope that this contributed in some way to letting know the girls in the audience that they should not self-restrain from certain kinds of jobs generally assigned to the other sex.

Let Toys Be Toys is not calling for legislation. We want publishers, toy retailers, and manufacturers to be aware of the impact they have on gender equality, and to choose for themselves a more moral and ethical way to sell. This is about freeing children from the shackles of conformity, rather than giving boys the impetus to play with dolls and girls with remote cars.

Biology is a common argument against label-free toys, suggesting that preferences among young children are innate. In a culture loaded with gender codes, it is difficult to separate the natural from the social. However, a study from Cambridge University professor Melissa Hines shows that tastes are acquired through the process of socialisation: at the age of one year, both girls and boys prefer pink dolls over cars. Twelve month later, boys tend to avoid toys considered feminine and go for cars more than for dolls.

Nevertheless, the question is not whether or not biology impacts a child’s choice of toys, but to what extent society does. History suggests that the association of pink for girls and blue for boys is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the mid-19th century, children used to wear androgynous white gowns as they could easily be bleached. According to historian Jo B. Paoletti, author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys in America, in 1927 Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colours according to U.S. stores. Filene’s from Boston, Best & Co in New York and Halle’s in Cleveland advised parents to dress boys in pink, a definite and masculine colour. As far as blue is concerned, it was seen as a dainty and demure colour correlated with the Virgin Mary, and reserved to girls. The association reversed in the 1940s and was imposed by big manufacturers, but was later challenged by the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, which introduced unisex products.

It was only in the 1980s that the present colour fad really erupted. It emerged hand-in-hand with the boom in consumerism among children’s toys as a consequence of toy manufacturers’ marketing tactics: while differentiation increases profit margins, segmentation widens market shares. From baby buggies to cookery sets and ballerina costumes, all girls’ toys were invaded by pink. Gradually it became impossible for parents to avoid toys either subtly or explicitly assigned to a gender. In the long term, this trend harmed both the mental and physical health of children.

Let Toys Be Toys is fighting back, and has made real progress the last few years. Our 2013 survey of toy shops in the run up to Christmas showed a 60% reduction in the use of explicit ‘Girls’ and ‘Boys’ signs in stores. Amongst others, Boots removed the ‘Gifts for Boys’ signs from displays of science toys, and Debenhams replaced their pink and blue ‘Girls’ and ‘Boys’ signs with thematic signs such as ‘Dolls’, ‘Vehicles’, and ‘Dressing up’.

The identity of a child should not be defined by his or her gender. Every child should be given the possibility to explore his or her own interests, wherever they may lie. Caring boys and adventurous girls exist!

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