The first time my daughter ever had a “playdate”, it was with a little boy in her Reception class at school. I went along too, but while having a perfectly pleasant cup of tea, noticed something unusual. The other parent, as new to playdates as I was, appeared visibly flustered by the devastation of Lego on the floor. “I’ll have to hunt around in the loft,” she apologised. “To see if I have any girls’ toys.”
Automatically, I glanced over at our children, who were playing perfectly happily together (by taking it in turns to hurtle themselves over the back of the sofa, as it happened). It was early in their little lives – the kids just four – but it wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed gender bias as a parent.
There was the Italian man in a cafe who, on seeing my six-month pregnant belly, asked me if I knew if I was having a boy or girl. “A boy,” he said, kissing his fingers. “This is what you want.”
The taxi driver who trilled: “Let’s just hope you’re having a boy – playing with trains is much more fun than dolls.”
There was the woman in the supermarket who – on seeing my little girl in her favourite dress, which had the Star Wars logo emblazoned across the middle – leaned over to her conspiratorially and teased, “You can’t like Star Wars – Star Wars is for boys!” I had to watch my little girl’s face crumple like an accordion.
There was also the dad at school who told my daughter (after she’d been picked as “player of the week” at her after-school football club) that he hoped they’d “start some clubs for girls soon” – presumably so his son didn’t have to play with a girl on the team. And the nursery teacher, who automatically ushered my son and his friend towards the tractors and building blocks, when what he really wanted to do was play with the plastic dolls and babies in prams.
For all these reasons (and so, so many more), the news that Lego has pledged to make its toys free from gender bias after global research found children remain held back by embedded gender stereotypes could not be more welcome. No more “Lego Friends” aimed at girls with cupcakes and princesses? Marvellous. I couldn’t be happier. I’ve never been able to bring myself to buy a single set.
And they’re not alone: California is to enforce “gender neutral” toy aisles in large stores – the first US state to do so. The new law, which was signed into law on Saturday, does not ban boys and girls sections in shops, but mandates that large stores must have also have a separate, gender-neutral section – or risk a fine.
Moves like this follow extensive research into the long-term effects of gender stereotyping – often producing shocking results. The Lego study surveyed nearly 7,000 parents and children aged 6-14 in the UK, US, China, Japan, Poland, Czech Republic and Russia, and found that impressing fixed ideas upon kids was affecting them in a multitude of ways.
The researchers found that while girls were growing in confidence and eager to explore a wide range of activities, the same was not true of boys – in fact, 71 per cent of boys feared they would be made fun of if they played with what they described as “girls’ toys”. Even more sobering, if not surprising? Their parents were worried, too.
I’ve seen that kind of behaviour modelled constantly, anecdotally – the dad who put on a ridiculous display of horror when his son rushed up to show him he had painted nails at a street party; the fact that my best friend’s boy – who refuses to wear anything but a tutu or a princess dress – is constantly (and consistently) mid-gendered. The idea that boys might just want to break the mould; to try dressing up, to stoke their caring and nurturing sides by playing “teachers” – none of this is encouraged.
And the research backs this up: the Lego analysis also found girls five times more likely to be encouraged to try dancing or dressing-up than boys when it came to play, and three times more likely to be encouraged to try baking, while boys were encouraged to do sports or Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities. And we wonder why there’s such a woeful lack of representation for women working in science.
The problem is that this kind of lazy gender stereotyping isn’t just outdated, but actively damaging to us all. In 2019 The Fawcett Society published research which showed the lifelong impact of gender stereotypes in early childhood – of the 45 per cent of people who said they’d experienced stereotyping as a child, more than half (51 per cent) said it had constrained their career choices, and 44 per cent said it had harmed their personal relationships.
Half of all women affected (53 per cent) said gender stereotyping had a negative impact on who did the caring in their own family – with older women particularly affected. Seven in 10 younger women (18-34s) affected by stereotypes said they believed their career choices had been restricted as a result.
And it’s not just women – boys and men feel it too. Some 69 per cent of men under 35 said they believed gender stereotyping had a damaging effect on perceptions of what it means to be a man or a woman; and men were just as likely as women to say that gender stereotypes they experienced had negatively affected their relationships.
So why is it that retailers insist on reinforcing the so-called gender split? And will we see more brands such as Lego trying to make a difference?
Unlikely, according to Sam Smethers, former chief executive of the Fawcett Society. “Evidence shows that there is no such thing as a female or a male brain but retailers persist in creating and perpetuating gender differences just to sell products,” she said.
But maybe we all need to look at our own behaviours, too. Take a moment to answer this question: when you’re looking for a child’s present online, do you ever write “gifts for girls” or “gifts for boys”? And when you click through to the results, are they divided into pink and blue? Thought so.
I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve (probably) all done it – especially when we’re feeling time-poor and lost for inspiration. At those moments, being directed straight to the “perfect present” can feel helpful and convenient.
The problem is that we now know that marking kids out by gender actually reinforces stereotypes about what girls and boys can (or can’t) do – and has long-lasting and damaging effects; impacting everything from career choice to healthy relationships and self-esteem – the last thing any parent or carer would want.
One pal who works in marketing told me that big brands consciously divide kids’ products by gender, because it increases sales. She said it is consumer-led and reactive – meaning they only do it because we are searching for it.
So perhaps the answer to combating gender reinforcement when it comes to shopping lies with us: to stop it, we simply need to stop seeking it out.