Jenny Willott: Gender stereotyping of toys harms the economy

I’ve been an auntie for 21 years and a mother for almost 15. In that time, it’s safe to say that a large part of my disposable income has gone on toys. I find nothing more frustrating than going to a toy shop and finding that the wares are segregated into boys’ and girls’ stuff. Often the girls’ stuff is all pink and glittery and sparkly and involves dollies or little dogs or animals to put in houses. Anything remotely interesting that you can build or make rather than look after is over in the boys’ section.

Now, I don’t have a heart of stone. If a child said that they wanted a My Little Pony, they got one. For a time, it felt like our house was drowning in the infernal things. You have to go with what the child’s own tastes. We’ve variously had ponies, puppies, dinosaurs, lego, sonic screwdrivers and science kits and makes. To this day a life-size cardboard cut-out of Matt Smith shares space with  Sunny Daze, a pony refugee from toddlerhood.

I have long had concerns about the way toys are marketed in this country. Way back in 2010 I was furious when the Early Learning Centre suggested nurses’ outfits were for girls and doctors’ outfits for boys. How dare they limit the ambitions of our girls? And look at the earnings differential between a nurse and a doctor and how that pans out over a lifetime.

Anyway, on Wednesday, there was a Westminster Hall debate on gender specific marketing of toys. It was one of these occasions when I just wanted to punch the air with every comment. Both Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP who instigated the debate, and Jenny Willott, our minister replying to it,  were speaking for me. Heavens, even the Tory knight in the room got it. You can read the whole debate here, but I thought I’d point out a few highlights from Jenny’s speech.

She pointed out that the toys we play with can develop skills and limiting one gender to a particular type of skill is simply wrong:

Children should not be made to feel guilty or ashamed about experimenting with different toys and different kinds of play, but that is what we are effectively doing by implicitly labelling toys “not for you”. That process starts at a young age. Children learn through play, and if we want them to explore their skills and interests and to develop to the limits of their potential, we must not restrict that at the age of two, five or 10 by restricting their choices of play.

A boy who has never had a sewing kit may never discover his talent for design. A girl who has never had a Meccano set may never discover that she has real potential as an engineer. Clearly, not every girl who plays with Lego is going to be an architect. I was excellent at designing Lego houses, but my future was obviously not in architecture. Nevertheless, why should we limit girls’ aspirations at so early an age by making things so rigidly defined?

And she made the point that she wasn’t trying to stop boys playing football or girls playing with dollies:

I recognise that there are some arguments in favour of the gender marketing of toys. For example, science and engineering kits are aimed at girls by using pink and purple to attract them to play with them more, and there are also pink Lego sets, pink globes and so on. It is argued that such products sell well and show girls that science and other potential careers are for them. That might be true, but it raises the issue of whether, in the longer term, that just reinforces the notion that if it is not pink and pretty, it is not for girls. That concerns me. As someone who never wears pink, I feel that we should be able to broaden out. Girls should have wider aspirations, rather than just assuming that they have to play with it if it is pink.

It is often suggested that those of us who oppose gender-specific toys are somehow going against nature and attempting social engineering against children’s perfectly natural and hard-wired preferences, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am not trying to stop boys from playing football or girls from playing with dolls. Nature undoubtedly has a role in how children play and interact with toys. My three-year-old son is completely obsessed with cars, trains and diggers, and he always has been, but he also makes a mean cup of pretend tea and is very good at making pretend cakes. Nature has a role to play, but it is not the be-all and end-all.

She went into go into some detail about the gender differential in university courses with caring professions being female dominated and engineering and science being male dominated and concluded that there were economic implications of not tackling gender stereotyping:

Toys are a hugely important part of our children’s learning and development. It is of course for children and their parents to choose the toys they play with, as we were just discussing. They should be able to make those choices freely from a full range of toys. How our children play helps to shape their aspirations for the future, and I want those aspirations to be based on their abilities and interests, not on stereotypes. I value the right of every single child to be treated as a unique individual and to be given the opportunity to explore their own interests and develop their own potential and talents, wherever they may lie. That is important not only for children now playing, but for the future of the economy.

If you are interested in this issue, there is a “Let toys be toys” petition you can sign as MSP Alison McInnes did last year.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Eddie Sammon 7th Feb '14 - 9:52pm

    I agree gender stereotyping is anti-freedom of choice, but in the real world if I had a son and they picked a load of pink girl toys for Christmas then I would intervene. I couldn’t face them being bullied. But yes, we could do something to reduce this pressure.

    We need to be careful we don’t sound intolerant to those who prefer tradition. I for one thought the Telegraph article was making fun of us.

    Best wishes

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Feb '14 - 10:30am

    I’m beginning to wonder why Lib Dem MPs hate girls so much. First they sought to give girls a guilt complex for enjoying things like fashion and beauty, now they want to make girls feel bad about the toys and even the colours they like. No such pressure on boys, even though many of the things boys tend to like more – violent video games, cars etc – are far more damaging to themselves and society.

    Why can’t Lib Dems just let girls do what they want to do?

    As a parent of 15 years I have also spent many an hour in toy shops, and I simply don’t know were Willott is getting her idea that science toys are marketed solely at boys. Not in the shops round my way they aren’t. All the toy shops I know have the science/educational toys in non-gender specific sections. Most of the science toys I’ve ever bought – chemistry kits and such like – have shown pictures of both boys and girls on the packaging. Willott is inventing a problem that does not exist.

    I think that girls have far more choice in these matters than boys do. My daughter has gone through many phases of playing solely with “boys’ toys” and dressing in a boyish way, because she says this makes her more “cool”. This does not work the other way.

    “How dare they limit the ambitions of our girls?”

    I do hope you’re not suggesting that someone whose ambition is to be a nurse is suffering from more “limited” ambitions than somebody who wants to be a doctor. I have both doctors and nurses in my family and I don’t see it that way at all.

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Feb '14 - 11:27am

    It’s tempting to dismiss Willott’s comments as a joke, but thinking about it more has actually made me a little angry.

    It’s well known that girls are more than capable of competing with boys at school (regardless of what toys they like playing with). The suppression of women in the workplace occurs later in life and is mostly down to ingrained patriarchy – a problem the Lib Dems, as an institution, suffer from more than most.

    How incredibly insulting for Jenny WIllott to ignore the substantial problem and instead tell girls that they are holding THEMSELVES back by their choice of toys and colours.

    If the Early Learning Centre were to produce a “Lib Dem MP Dressing Up Outfit” then for reasons of authenticity this would undoubtedly consist of a man’s suit and tie, with a false beard included as an optional extra. Who exactly would be guilty of reining in girls’ ambitions in this situation – the Early Learning Centre, or the Lib Dems?

  • I think many are missing the real point, toys are in the first instance marketed at adults!!!

    Babies and young children, don’t understand the colour coding and segregation of toys! And as Disney showed with their princess’es colour is a learnt and hence cultural association – in Disney’s early works the princess wears blue, only in more recent work does she wear pink. So in the first instance it is parents and other adults buying toys that allow themselves to be ‘misguided’ to the ‘appropriate’ toy aisle and to feel uncomfortable about buying toys that they have been socially conditioned to feel are ‘inappropriate’ for a particular gender.

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