Pink princesses, unicorns, purple lego; blue construction toys, guns, science kits: whether or not stores specifically label sections for ‘Girls’ and ‘Boys’, the great pink/blue divide doesn’t leave much doubt who a toy was intended for.
Conservative dinosaurs will say “that’s the way it’s always been”, but this sea of pink and blue is a relatively recent phenomenon.
More Equality in the 70s?
Look back to the 1970s and you’ll see a more balanced approach to gender in toy adverts. Dr Elizabeth Sweet, a specialist in gender and children’s toys, found that in the 1975 Sears catalogue, very few toys were marketed by gender, with nearly 70% of toys having no gender markings.
So how did we get to today’s great toy store gender divide? By reinforcing the idea that certain colours are for boys or girls, toy companies get to sell you two of the same product: one pink, one blue, doubling their sales.
The Social Cost of ‘Normal’
Once the idea that certain colours or toys are for a particular gender becomes more established, the social cost to a parent or the child of breaking that social ‘norm’ becomes even higher.
This is especially true for boys: while there’s an increasing trend for girls to embrace traditionally ‘male’ spheres like computer coding and science, there’s still a real taboo for men and boys around being ‘girly’ — being feminine is still considered to be a real negative.
Dr Sweet writes that “as toys have become more and more gender segregated, the social costs of boundary crossing and the peer pressure to stay within the lines are huge, for kids and parents alike”.
While most parents would feel comfortable — maybe even slightly proud — of giving their daughter a toy truck to play with, would parents of boys feel the same way about buying their son a dolls house or pram?
Stereotypes in Action
These ideas of what is ‘normal’ for a boy or girl impact the way we treat children. In the recent BBC Documentary No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?, adults were provided with a range of toys to entertain a baby.
They consistently picked out the pink soft toy for the ‘girl’ and the robot or car for the ‘boy’ baby, explaining it wasn’t their choice, it just seemed to be the toy the baby was most interested in.
The catch? The researchers had switched the babies’ clothes: the baby in the dress was a little boy and vice versa; the adults had projected their expectations of what the child would enjoy onto the baby based on their gender.
It even carries through to the classroom. Researchers from the University of Georgia and Columbia University found that boys who perform equally well as girls on tests receive worse marks from their teachers — with one exception: if the boys’ behaviour is equally good as their female peers, then they actually get higher scores.
Children’s Awareness of Gender
As anyone who’s spent time around children knows, they pick up on everything — including social cues on what’s ‘normal’ for a girl or boy;
It happens earlier than you might think: research has shown that at just 3-4 months old, babies can distinguish between male and female faces; a few months later, they can link female/male faces with typical voices. Fast forward to ten months old and babies can link faces to typical objects for that gender.
The preference many parents notice for typically girly or boyish toys only actually shows up after children become aware of their own gender.
Early stereotypes play a massive role as toddlers begin to learn more about their identity and the world around them. For preschoolers, there’s not really a grey area: they try hard to replicate what’s expected of them.
Why does it matter?
If children are aware of gender at such a young age anyway then is what’s the risk in giving them gendered toys? They’re just play things anyway, right?
Toys play a huge role in helping children develop the skills they need for everyday life. Whether it’s logic and motor skills from a shape-matching toy or communication and nurturing from a doll, toys help them replicate and understand the world around them.
But in today’s toy store, neither girls or boys are getting the opportunity to explore the full range of interests and skills on offer: girls toys consistently focus on social and communication skills, while toys marketed to boys develop cognitive and spatial abilities.
It’s the same on the bookshelves. A 2017 survey by Nielson found that in the most popular children’s picture books the lead characters were 50% more likely to be male; 20% of the books even had no female characters.
It’s not just about colours. It’s not just about toys. It’s not just about books. It’s about children missing out on developing a wide range of skills and interests because of social norms created by marketing departments to sell more products.
The Impact of Gendered Toys on School Performance
If this all sounds a bit far-fetched, take a look at the data: the impact of missing out developing certain skills is visible from an early age at school.
The OECD found that a third of girls say maths makes them nervous compared to just one in five boys; 55% of girls worry about getting bad scores in maths.
Boys are missing out too: for the past 30 years, girls’ have been outperforming boys at GCSEs. In the PISA surveys, 60% of low achievers in reading, maths, and science were boys.
Looking at the Long Term
The subjects they study and the grades they get at school then has a direct impact on the careers children pick.
Despite similar results in the PISA science test, the OECD found that just one in 20 girls considers a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths), while one in 5 boys plans to enter the field.
The impact continues at A-level. Under 10% of computing students are women (9.8%), just over one in 5 physics students are female (21.6), rising to 27.5% for further maths.
The result? Only 10% of people working in engineering are women, and the UK lags behind the number of women in engineering compared to the rest of Europe (in Latvia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, almost 30% of the engineering workforces are female).
The Economic Cost
By perpetuating the idea that certain professions are for a particular gender, we’re digging ourselves into a bit of an economic hole.
Manufacturing in the UK provides jobs for around 2.7 million people and creates half of the UK’s exports. It’s the sector that gets over two-thirds of R&D investment from businesses.
But to keep this sector going, Engineering UK reports that “265,000 skilled entrants [are] required annually to meet demand for engineering enterprises through to 2024”.
How close are we to meeting that need? There’s an annual shortfall of 20,000 engineering graduates according to the organisation’s latest report. Ouch.
Just looking at these statistics shows there’s not only a benefit to the individual children we teach to be open minded about gender, there’s economic value to moving away from the pink blue divide too.
The Emotional Impact
Even if your child isn’t a budding engineer ready to solve the skills shortage, there are visible long-term emotional impacts of growing up with strong gender stereotypes.
The focus on appearance in girls’ toys helps foster body image issues in young women: 90% of people with eating disorders are women aged 12 to 25.
By age 9 or 10, half of girls say they feel better about themselves when they’re dieting.
In their first video, the Gender Equality Charter shares some scary stats: 70% of children with special educational needs are male; 80% of children in custody are male; and men are three times more likely to commit suicide.
For more on how the Gender Equality Charter plan on tackling this at home, school, and in business, take a look at their site and sign up to the GEC: https://www.thegenderequalitycharter.com/.
This isn’t just about little girls “loving pink” or wanting to be a princess or little boys feeling compelled to hide their feelings and love football, gender stereotyping affects everyone at every age.
By giving kids a range of varied toys to play with it can help little minds stay open at a crucial point in development. It can help them develop a wider range of skills and learn to listen to their own heart and mind to find what interests them.
And it’s not enough just to buy more neutral toys or balanced books: we have to challenge ourselves. Are we really modelling equality in the way we speak and act?
Starting a gender neutral store made my partner and me reflect on those tiny details: who’s always first to start cooking? Who brings the bins in?
You’ll often find stereotypes reflected in the tiny, everyday habits. Challenge yourself to change them.