Why Should We Bother With Gender Neutral Toys?

Girls can like space too
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Trucks and trains for boys. Dolls and kitchens for girls. This is how gender specific toys have been marketed for decades. But are we finally seeing the end of gender stereotyping toys?

Children, especially those at the beginning of their learning, learn through play. Playing and all that it encompasses is their whole world. The toys that they play with have a massive impact on their mindsets and thought processes. 

Gender itself, and what that means to children, is also learnt at this early stage. Western society has made progress in gender equality since the beginning of the 20th century, but when toys are considered it's difficult to agree. Toys, it would seem, are becoming more and more stereotyped. The traditional gender roles are being further concentrated and even promoted. This doesn't paint a pretty picture, especially when we consider the impact this has on girls' self-image and understanding.

Typically gender stereotyped toys

Looking back in time.

In the period between the 1920s and 1950s toys were marketed directly at prescribed gender roles. The "little housewife" and the "young man of industry". The traditional roles weren't only pushed on families and children but they were positively encouraged.

It took until the 1970s, with a resurgence in the feminist movement, for some change to take place. In fact, in America, by 1975 only roughly 2% of toys marketed by Sears (a US catalogue industry giant) were directly marketed at girls or boys. Even Barbie, these days the paragon of pink, wore primary, gender neutral colours. 

Unfortunately the 1980s brought back the stereotypes. Television advertisers had their reins loosened and were able to directly appeal to the markets that they wanted to target. Children's television shows aimed solely at one gender started to become more and more prolific. GI Joe and My Little Pony flew the flag of gender stereotyping, and so did the toys that came with them. 

This style of marketing is still prevalent in the modern day. Until only recently one could easily browse toy websites using Boys and Girls sections. Even as regularly as 2017 The Disney Store happily promoted products for specific genders with barely any crossover in the Both section. Thankfully this has since been corrected, with every toy now being cross referenced for both. But does this solve the problem? Marketing has a great deal to answer for.

Segregated toy aisle

The costs to children are bigger than it might seem on the surface. Construction toys, an eduKidz favourite, are far more likely to be played with by boys than by girls. These toys hold huge benefits for children as they develop, especially when it comes to spatial intelligence (our understanding of the world around us), and girls risk missing out. Even my favourite toy line, LEGO, is guilty of gender stereotyping. Their girl-focused LEGO Friends set required minimal construction and was designed to be used more like a dolls house than a typical building toy.

LEGO is primarily designed to unleash creativity and encourage children to build an active interest in the logical thought processes at the heart of all STEM careers. This range didn't deliver on these core principles. We’ve covered the benefits, of which there are many, LEGO provides to kids in a previous article. It would be a crying shame if only 50% of children were able to reap these benefits. It's not just the adults that are noticing this either as we can see in this letter to LEGO from young Charlotte Benjamin:

Letter to LEGO

If one visits a typical toy shop it can lead to a veritable indoctrination. Pink, kitchens, princesses and beauty for girls. Blue, action heroes, war and bravery for boys. We can clearly see who might lose out here. Girls aren’t even being offered the chance to consider roles outside of those typically mandated to them.

It’s time for a change.

A viral video in 2017 showed the roles that primary children felt were appropriate for them in adult life. By age 11 (the end of primary school) they have very clear ideas about who can do what, and these ideas are difficult to change.

Let's take a minute to watch the film below. The children featured are tasked with drawing 3 professions: a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot. They are then introduced to 3 people who work in these professions: 
         
         
There are 2 particular moments that stand out. One, the looks of pure, open mouthed shock when the 3 women walk in. Two, the girl who involuntarily shouts out "They're dressing up!". Gender stereotypes, as the film states, are set between the ages of 5 and 7. During this time toys are incredibly prevalent and children are incredibly open to influence. This is a time to teach open mindedness and freedom of choice rather than channeling and pigeonholing our new generation.
             
Peppermint Playhouse
The Peppermint Townhouse from eduKidz. Fun for everyone.
             

The world is catching up with itself. More and more of the general population no longer stand for gender specific branding and marketing. Leading the charge in the UK, Let Toys Be Toys campaigns for gender neutral toys and an abandonment of stereotypes. Research that they carried out found direct links between gender labeling at an early age and inequality in later life. Their campaign ethos is explained in the following statement:

Toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity. Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them.

Isn’t it time that shops stopped limiting children’s imagination by telling them what they ought to play with?

In a separate project, two authors researched how many children's books had female leads, female characters with speech and female characters who hold aspirations of their own: 

 

As you can see, the results were dire! Their response to this is a book containing 100 bedtime stories about 100 extraordinary women. It is illustrated by 60 illustrators from around the world. The Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls provides young children the opportunity to learn about and from incredible role models.

Children's laureate Lauren Child (author of the Ruby Redfort series and Charlie and Lola) was questioned on female roles in children's books after being presented with similar research to above:

“The research doesn’t surprise me, we see it in film and TV as well. But it gives out a message about how society sees you. If boys get the starring roles in books – both as the good and bad protagonists – and girls are the sidekicks, it confirms that’s how the world is and how it should be. It’s very hard to feel equal then.”

The issue is not exclusive to girls. Boys face the same stereotyped branding. The Huffington Post found that "Boys were four times more likely to be shown (in a toy catalogue) playing with cars and twice as likely to be shown with construction toys. And a grand total of 97% of children pictured with guns or war toys, were also male." Boys might not want to pretend to kill with guns or work on a construction site. There should be no problem with that.

This article is not trying to persuade girls to play with traditional boys' toys or vice versa. It is trying to state that there should be a choice. If a girl wants to play with a camouflaged jeep and a boy wants to play with a kitchen play set then good for them. Similarly, if a girl wants to play with dolls and a boy with trucks then great. Every child deserves and should have the right to unbiased, uninfluenced choice.

Boys and Girls - equal.

Gender stereotyping is clearly alive and, unfortunately, well. Whilst there have been some concessions to toy branding and marketing there is a long way to go. That said, the emphasis is on retailers to bring about real change. That’s why here at eduKidz we’re practicing what we preach. We can guarantee that you won’t find any gender specific toys, gender specific marketing or gender centric branding on our store. This is my pledge to you for the lifetime of our company.

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