What do toys have to do with inequality?

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 packaging showing boy wearing Doctor outfit, girl wearing nurse outfit

‘Men are doctors, women are nurses’. With female doctors set to outnumber male by 2017, where do children get that idea?

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.

Tinkerbell-toycar-@JoWarner01A 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

87% of girls think women are judged more on their appearance than their ability.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.

Getting in a bit of 'big brother' practice

Getting in a bit of ‘big brother’ practice

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


  1. Mrs U James

    Hello, I grew up in the 70’s and the era of womens lib to working class Indian parents who positively encouraged us to go university and be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer in a world which was just starting to challenge gender stereotypes. So when I had my first child, she had unisex clothes and I bought unisex toys and was determined to get them to try both gender roles, ie learn to paint a wall or fix a plug and to cook. I thought nothing of my daughter from the age of 6 months to 1 year old choosing shape sorters and cuddly toys to play with. It was only when my son was born that I was surprised to see him reach for at 6 months, a ball, and then a car by the age one a train. He can have a full range of toys to pick from, he would have seen his sister play with feminine toys so why did he pick boys toys. After giving equal opportunities to both I was forced to admit it’s nature not nurture. Boys also handle emotions and communications differently from girls and their peer pressure is different as well, it’s very noticeable in schools to see boys fall behind because they are not wired to sit still all day and read, whereas girls thrive better on this. They are now in their 20’s and I think it’s good to have equal opportunity, just don’t be surprised if they don’t buy it. More importantly is it worth thinking of how to use their inherent nature, or working with nature rather than trying to force a change? I think we have a long way to go to understand what makes boys and girls tick and I think some of the answer lies more in the book Men are Mars and Women are from Venus than in the way we advertise toys. I find you can still encourage your children even when older to try other gender roles like teaching your teenage son to cook or encouraging your teenage daughter to fix the tv aerial so it’s never too late. These are my thoughts based on my observations of an equal opportunity project that didn’t work quite as I expected. : )

    • Your children may have followed gender expectations, but plenty don’t, so it’s risky to draw a firm conclusion from a sample of two. Mine ‘fit the mould’ in some ways, and don’t at all in others.

      More importantly, whether there are innate differences between males and females at a population level doesn’t really matter. Human beings are complex individuals, and marketing which pretends that people’s interests and abilities can be divided into two distinct types does a disservice to everyone.

  2. Ms Martha Jones

    Mrs James – you’re basing your conclusions on your experiences with just two childre. You could find two children who reached for opposite toys.

    Also does not take into account influences from other people, advertising, unconscious prompting by yourself.

  3. Eric Harvey

    Campaigns like yours attempt to constrain or ban freedom of choice – and no doubt speech too in certain circumstances – when those choices do not accord with your own complacent moral rectitude. Tyrranies often deploy these methods.

    • No-one’s freedom is constrained by taking down signs and labels that tell children which interests are suitable for a boy or for a girl. Shoppers are still free to choose the toys they wish.

      Children’s freedom to choose their interests for themselves is very much restricted if they learn that certain toys or books are off limits for them. It simply isn’t on for adults to tell children what they are supposed to like.

    • Seana Gladwin

      Actually, this campaign aims to broaden choice, not restrain it. Why should a boy feel they shouldn’t play with dolls because they’re in the “girls” section, or a girl interested in science have to look in the “boys” section? And why should kids only be expected to like toys that are a certain colour, and be ridiculed if they don’t conform? Marketing toys as “for girls” or “for boys” is just a (relatively recent) marketing ploy to get parents to spend more money – and it works!

    • Grackle

      Only in Bizarro World does more freedom of choice equal a ban on freedom of choice. Did you even read the article or do you genuinely think people are banning certain kinds of toys?

  4. Mandy A Jones

    Boys and girls play with different toys not just because of a social thing, but also a biological thing. It’s both. We can’t change the biological factor, but can change the social factor. Let the boys play with dolls in peace.

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