Can playing with ‘gendered’ toys when we are young lead to gender stereotyping when we grow up?
Blue or Pink? This seemingly simple choice can significantly limit a child’s skillset and worldview. The moment you are born, your parents start making choices based on your gender—choices, which include colour, clothing and toys. Girls get kitchen sets and dolls to dress up in pink and glitter, while boys get building blocks and chemistry sets.
This problem has worsened over the decades. According to Sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, in the 1970s—with the second wave feminist movement on the rise—there were few gendered toys, and less than 2% of the advertisements in the Sears catalogue were explicitly marketed by gender. Even a small fraction of the gendered toys section had gender-neutral colours like red and yellow. However, by the 1980s, toys became more gender-segregated, leading to today’s strict division of toys into pink and blue aisles.
The issue with gender-specific toys is that they limit the type of skills children build. Traditionally, ‘masculine’ toys, such as building blocks and puzzles, which encourage the development of spatial and visual skills, were given to boys. Whereas, typically ‘feminine’ toys like dolls and pretend kitchens, which develop cognitive sequencing of events, communication, and social skills were given to girls. “While it may seem like a trivial issue, toys help children to learn new skills and develop intellectually”, explained Lisa Dinella, Associate Professor, Monmouth University and Principal Investigator of the Gender Development Laboratory. “Both genders lose out if we put kids on one track and they can’t explore,” said Dinella.
But the problem is even bigger than that. If children are only exposed to gender-specific toys, they miss out on developing specific skills, along with limiting their interests and perceptions of what work they can do in future. Traditionally, ‘masculine’ toys provide a better sense of education and learning and a path towards careers such as engineering and architecture since they involve construction and machinery. ‘Feminine toys’, on the other hand, promote caring and nurturing and hence a path to careers such as nursing and cooking.
According to “Let Toys Be Toys”, a UK-based campaign focused on eliminating the gendered labelling and marketing of toys, “the stereotypes we see in toy marketing connect with the inequalities we see in adult life. By late primary age, research shows that children already have very clear ideas about the jobs that are suitable for boys and girls; ideas that are very hard to shake later on.”
IET analysis of leading search engines and toy retailers’ websites found that of the STEM toys on offer, 31% were listed for boys compared with just 11% for girls. A search using the terms “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” found that nine out of ten (89%) toys listed for girls were pink, compared with 1% for boys. Is it then surprising that STEM careers have a higher percentage of male workers as compared to female workers and women find it difficult to pursue careers that are math- and machinery-centric as compared to men?
Gender-neutral toys are a way to break this gender norm precedent and provide children with a broader spectrum in terms of both skills and choices. Gender-neutral toys also prove to be a way against sexist norms that restrict career choices and lifestyles for men and women.
Labelling toys not only is unfair, but it also helps create inequality. When children are told that certain things are for a specific gender only, they are faced, not only with the idea of missing out but also with the idea that gender defines everything and hence, in a way, corroborates gender stereotyping as a societal norm.