What do toys have to do with inequality?

Let Toys Be Toys This year, bloggers around the world are writing on the topic of inequality for Blog Action Day. Jess Day looks at how ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ toy marketing connects with the inequalities men and women face in adult life.

The UK gender pay gap stands at nearly 20%. Direct and indirect discrimination certainly haven’t gone away, but it’s widely acknowledged that much of the difference comes from the different choices men and women make, with women over-represented in low paid caring professions, and far more likely to work part time due to caring responsibilities. But how free are those choices? And what are the forces shaping them?

Toy marketing might not seem an obvious place to look, but children don’t pop out of the womb with expectations about their future careers, or beliefs about what their work is worth. However, by late primary age, research by Welsh organisation Chwarae Teg 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.

Setting the patterns

Science sets under ‘for boys’ labels, building and construction toys marketed with adverts and packaging featuring only boys, dolls and ‘home corner’ play clearly labelled and packaged towards girls all give children clear messages about what the grown up world thinks is suitable for them.

Toy marketing is pushing stereotypes which are well past their sell-by date. When I see Dads with pushchairs every day, why would a toy buggy be a ‘girls’ toy’? My children see me do most of the driving in our family, so why would a car be ‘for boys’?

Children are picking up these messages though – my daughter has been treated by female doctors and male nurses. So where would she get the idea that ‘Boys are doctors and girls are nurses’.

Play matters

Play is absolutely fundamental to children’s learning and development, and putting limits on what kind of play is permitted is putting limits on children’s development, it’s as simple as that.

You cannot make a child play with a toy, but you can very easily stop them, either by never offering it, or by subtle or less subtle messages that it’s ‘off limits’. Children are very attentive to social cues. They’re trying to learn how to be a grown up, and ‘Boys don’t play with dolls’ will be understood by them in just the same way as, ‘Hitting is wrong’ – they can’t understand the difference between those kinds of social rules.

A variety of play is really important for every child – enjoying sewing or colouring doesn’t rule out loving football or construction and all of these types of play develop different skills.

When we give boys the idea that they’re not to play with dolls or dressing up we’re taking away opportunities to develop their abilities to nurture, empathise and be creative. Failing to offer girls chances to build and construct means they miss out the chance to hone their spatial skills and build and reinforce the stereotype that girls are weaker in technical subjects. And the skills that are encouraged, praised and developed in childhood will naturally feed into the academic and career choices they make as they grow older.

Lucrative Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields don’t only have trouble attracting women, they also fail to keep them, the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ that sees women dropping out at every stage.

Sugar and spice

Dressing up is fun. But themes of glamour and beauty in toys and playthings directed at even the youngest girls tips over into a worrying emphasis on outward appearance. Make up sets for toddlers, ‘Top Model’ stationery for pre-teens, endless princess dresses can create an overwhelming wallpaper to girls’ lives that focuses on passively ‘being’ pretty rather than on ‘doing’ anything. Little wonder that research by Girlguiding UK found that 87% of girls thought that women were judged more on appearance than on their ability.

Rising levels of eating disorders are just the tip of the iceberg of body image anxiety which does untold harm, including distracting girls from focusing on learning and achieving.

Slugs and snails

Stereotyped attitudes about boys are equally harmful. The constant assumption reinforced in toy advertising and packaging that boys are inevitably rough, dirty, rowdy, interested only in action and violence tells calmer, more sensitive or more creative boys that they’re getting this whole ‘boy’ thing a bit wrong, and feeds low expectations of boys that undermine their performance at school.

Who’s holding the baby?

Women often find their careers falter when they have a family – many workplaces still have trouble adapting to the reality of workers beyond the museum piece of the full time working male whose family responsibilities are dealt with by someone else. But it isn’t only women’s careers that lose out. A study by Working Families showed that 82% of full time working men said they would like to spend more time with their children, and that many working dads felt very resentful at the lack of options for flexible working.

Real families are changing; The Fatherhood Institute observes that a substantial number of fathers are now full- or part-time ‘home dads’: among fathers of under-fives, 21% are solely responsible for childcare at some point during the working week and 43% of fathers of school-aged children provide care before/after school.

Increasingly, fathers want the chance to hold the baby too. So why discourage little boys from playing Daddy?

Toys are anything but trivial

If you think toys aren’t important, just ask a child. Toys and toy marketing loom very large in children’s worlds, and are hugely influential in children’s development. It’s time to challenge the limiting and dated stereotypes they peddle.

Since the Let Toys Be Toys campaign was launched in November 2012 14 retailers have changed their signage to remove ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs, or made a public commitment to do so, and our Christmas 2013 survey showed a 60% reduction in ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs in UK stores.

Just as importantly we hope we’ve really got people talking and thinking about the importance of what we tell children about boys and girls, women and men. We need to be offering children equal choices right from the start, so they grow up expecting, and demanding, equal rights at home and in the workplace.

Find out more about the Let Toys Be Toys campaign 



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