I am an aunt to four young girls and I see the impact of gender-based marketing on how they play every day. When one of my nieces was only four, I recall trying to encourage her to play LEGOs with me but she refused, insisting that it was a 'boy's toy.' This type of reaction from them always saddens me as LEGOs and other building toys were such an important part of my own childhood. They not only provide children with a great opportunity for open-ended, creative play, but such building toys help all kids' develop important spatial and analytic skills.
Toys have changed a lot since I was a children in the 1980s and toy marketing along with it. Back then, it was common to see ads with girls and boys playing together and girls were often shown in ads for building toys. Today, as anyone who has opened a toy catalog or walked into a major toy store in the past ten years knows, things a lot different. The separation of toys into so-called 'boys' and 'girls' toys has become more extreme to the detriment of all children. When you walk into a Toys R Us store or open their catalog, it's instantly clear to kids that science, building, vehicles, and superheroes are the purview of boys while girls' toy options include dolls, crafts, beauty supplies, and, of course, princess paraphernalia.
Such segregated play leads girls and boys to hone different skill sets from an early age; skills they build upon to determine the direction of their future schooling and later career path. These differences perpetuate the disparities still seen in the job market, particularly in women's low representation in technical fields like engineering and computer science. The number of children bullied because they wish to explore types of play that fall outside of the Toys R Us gendered 'boy' and 'girl' boxes also continues to rise.
The girls who love superheroes and the boys who might want to care for a doll deserve better. Over the years, I've been so frustrated by the limited options presented to my nieces that I recently created a website called A Mighty Girl to help others seeking empowering toys and books.
But, while efforts like A Mighty Girl give people more choices, for real change to happen, it needs to come from an industry leader. As the biggest toy store chain in the country, Toys R Us can set a new standard for encouraging non-gendered, open play by committing to eliminate the gender stereotyping rampant in their marketing materials.
Here are a few easy steps that Toy R Us can take:
- Remove 'boy' and 'girl' headings in their catalog and sort toys by theme rather than gender.
- Display photos of children engaged in diverse and non- stereotypical types of play in marketing materials; a girl playing with a building set or a boy playing with a dollhouse.
- Display photos of boys and girls playing together with a variety of toys.
Every child should feel free to explore their interests freely without feeling held back by outdated stereotypes. Will you join me in asking Toy R Us to stop gender stereotyping children in their marketing?