"You may say that I am a dreamer/But I am not the only one" John Lennon: "Imagine"

"So come brothers and sisters/For the struggle carries on" Billy Bragg: "The Internationale"

Elizannie has a reading room at 'Clarice's Book Page' http://www.villiersroad.blogspot.com/

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The danger [or not] of gender stereotyping in toys

I posted a comment on an interesting blog by Delilah

She was incensed because when she visited Hamleys in Regent Street, London recently she found that the boys and girls toys were 'segregated' and situated on completely different floors of the very large department store. Delilah objects to this stereotyping of children's toys and hence the reason for her blog, Hamleys toy shop promotes gender apartheid

As this is a subject in which I have an interest - and as Christmas is coming and an awful lot of toys will be bought and discarded in the next few months I thought I would share my thoughts!

Before you read my comment, please do not think I am in favour of gender segregation in toy shops! I would hate to think that girls were not allowed the opportunity to peruse or to play with exciting things like chemistry sets, and likewise that boys could not have the excitement of learning how to cook. Since I cannot perform chemical experiments or produce a reasonable meal I honestly will say neither is due to lack of opportunity educationally or socially-with-play-opportunities, simply I am just very heavily inept when it comes to weighing out any sort of ingredients....

However I would like to point out that I was as surprised as anyone when, in my second year at university, my own sociological research overturned my long held hypothesis that children did not have an inbuilt gender prejudice when choosing their playthings. As a mother of three young children I was convinced that we as a society 'socialised' our children into demanding gender stereotypical toys by our either influencing or applauding their choices ["Yes Maisie darling, I am sure you would *love* to have Miss Betty's Hair Salon for Christmas whilst your strong big brother Oliver has a woodwork set capable of building a replica of Stonehenge in Oak" type of thing]

In my research and after a lot of observation and note taking at various nursery schools and early play scheme areas I realised that at first babies and toddlers played with whatever was placed in front of them, regardless of gender. But by about three the little ones seemed to generally congregate into single sex gender groups and migrate to certain single sex activities: girls to the more domestic toys like 'pretend' home making skills, doll dressing etc and boys to the building bricks and toy cars. Actually this quite horrified me. Girls also seemed to be more attracted to bright,'pretty, colours when at the dressing up box - wanting to look 'beautiful' with boys rushing about imitating anyone grown-up who could rush about, basically, like a fireman or policeman.

I had previously subscribed to the theory that if a young child played with toys like building bricks it would help develop their mathematical skills in later life so had made sure that my elder two children had plenty of the old fashioned red, blue, yellow and green 'Lego' type 'opportunities'. But my eldest daughter heartily disliked such toys and had to work really hard to suceed at Maths whilst my son would play with such toys with deep absorption and was actually later found Maths an easy subject, and did very well at it. At the time of my research my youngest daughter was just coming up to the 'Lego age', so I rushed out and bought her a set of pink Lego [including a Lego hairdressing salon I believe!] hoping that the pink colour and 'domestic' subjects in the pink boxes would attract her [BTW Lego had had a lot of criticism when they introduced such a gender stereotypical collection as a pink collection 'for girls'. Me included]

Well anyway, youngest daughter loved pink Lego, played with it non-stop and was a whizz at Maths in later school life, turning out near the top of the school mathetmatics-wise and now using those skills in sales and marketing. May just be a coincidence and she would have been good at maths anyway, but I like to think my sociological research helped! And btw youngest daughter is now nagging me have I kept her sets of Lego for her 6 month old daughter. [Yes!]

So a little bit of gender stereotyping can be helpful when raising children and buying toys although nothing replaces common sense....


  1. It's funny, ( your reference to Math) I had flintstone building blocks (big styrofoam blocks you could build a igloo, fort, hut, or anything else with; legos that I played with as well. How was my math? Disgusting! about gender toys, I noticed what you did as well, watching age groups variating from 6months, to 12 years old. For the most part, regardless of family pushing (or lack thereof), most girls (including babies), gravitated to dolls, stuffed animals over other toys, including beeping electronic ones. They seem to show a sensitivity to both color and sound (wanting less noise), not sure why either. The only exception: children who were deaf, and for some reason, children without dolls early in life, (male or female) had bonding issues to stuffed animals, interactive games with people, and less sensitivity in general.

  2. Interesting comments, Mary. My newest granddaughter is attending sensory awareness baby play classes and it will be interesting to see if she has differing developmental skills.

  3. Someone who declares her politics to be leftist should really acquaint herself with current research on brain differences between boys and girls — which are much fewer than those between individuals of the same sex — and how relentlessly Western society, and many parents, police the gender expression of children. Including just after they've emerged from the womb.

    "Biology is destiny" is not a progressive value, and neither is refusal to look at facts rather than rely on the lazy, untested biases collectively justified as "common sense."

  4. Interesting comment, Anonymous, although I fail to see the relevance of my politics to the subject in hand or my research!
    I tried to make it clear that the findings of the research that I undertook surprised me at the time. Like many a researcher, I started with one hypothesis, that toy colour and gender preferences did not exist in small children's choice of toys, but had to change this when I discovered that by the age of two and a half to three there was a definite bias toward a gender orientated role model approach - generally girls choosing what could be described as 'home craft' role play and dressing up as princesses for example and boys toward more mechanical toys and if dressing up rushing around as fireman and male role model characters - DESPITE the opportunity for both genders to play with both sets of toys.

    I felt that whatever the cause of these choices, certain of the choices and for example the toys that develop spatial awareness such as Lego should be made more attractive to both genders. Thus PINK lego was a good thing if it encouraged girls to play with it. Likewise making - say - cookery playware in a more masculine styling would help encourage boys awareness in food production and - again for example - calorific values at a later date.
    Why bright colours seem to attract girls rather than boys is a whole other debate, and is the subject of other research as you point out. It can be put down to brain differences as you suggest but may also be cultural bias. I had a colleague whose PhD research was in colour perception amongst differing racial groupings but even that can be dependent upon cultural and peer group influences. So these sort of conclusions are notoriously difficult to draw.
    In my own household all children are encouraged to do exactly what they want. Yes I bought Youngest Granddaughter pink Lego for Christmas and Eldest Grandson often pulls a chair up to the kitchen work surfaces to help me or Other half cook. In fact he has more commons sense about cooking aged six than I have, but that is not difficult! One Grandson loves his football training on a Saturday morning whilst another loves his Drama club. One Daughter played football for her Uni whilst also choreographing dances for the end of term productions. Both Son-in-laws and Son are very good cooks. As we used to say when we lived in Germany "gut das anders bist" - "Its good to be different"

  5. Elizannie, I don't mean to be rude but what?!!! Are you saying you believe you were able to draw those conclusions from the kids you observed? Were those kids raised in vacuums? Were they heck as like! A 2-3 year old has received loads of external gender influences. Of course they gravitate toward their 'official' toys. They are bombarded by gender-coding from the moment they're born, people banter sexist shite at kids from day one. It's not about saying 'do what you want' and they actually do! I'm sorry, but I'm actually a bit shocked. You certainly can't use an anecdotal account to justify your position so can you supply more information from your study? How you tested your hypothesis to the point of conclusion? How you made allowance for all these external factors. Scientists have acknowledged that kids gravitate towards their 'official' toys from a certain age, of course they do, it's a no-brainer. Doesn't make it any way innate. If anything a lot of these play constructs and use of these colours are relatively new.

    As an aside and with respect, I can't help but notice you're a Christian. Might you may have a pre-disposed bias to believing that women innately fulfil certain feminine criteria?

  6. So . . .er, anecdata. You don't actually have any research or data to back up your statements, and even admit that younger children simply play with whatever is in front of them, and gender bias for toys develops later. So what is the magical proof that this is not culturally influenced?

  7. Well, Anonymous, I am saying that the gender choicedifferences exist by two and a half to three, although apparently not before that time. I am not going to publish my whole research - obviously that would take up to much room - but it took place amongst different age groupings of children in social settings such as Mother and Toddler clubs and Nurseries.
    What outside influences cause these gender choice differences was not the subject of my research and I have no doubt that for these the media has a lot to answer. In the run up to this Christmas alone TV adverts could be blamed for lots of the 'Dear Santa, Please bring me a [fill in the gap]' What I am trying to say is where these gender choice differences occur whilst we are sorting out the cause we should recognise they are there and employ other methods pro tem to balance, as it were. I am not saying these choices are good or right!

    The innateness is there by the ages of two or three because whether from nature or nurture it has arrived. what we as a society do to address that is a whole other debate. Yes the use of the colours is new - a good thing imo as when i wanted lego as a child I was told I couldn't have it because it was for boys. I had to play with my male cousins to get a look in! If pink lego was around then maybe I would have stood a chance!

    "As an aside and with respect, I can't help but notice you're a Christian. Might you may have a pre-disposed bias to believing that women innately fulfil certain feminine criteria?"

    Good grief no! My sort of Christianity is practised in what we can call a 'Dissenting Church' so no defined roles there! [I wouldn't be there if it was all 'Kinder,K├╝che,Kirche'!] What does influence me in choosing toys, I will admit, is my pacifism, but knowing the contrary nature of children I would never not buy a dearly wanted militaristic toy - just bribe with a more expensive more peaceful option or sdaly find the militaristic one broke very easily.......

    As I have said on another website discussing this blog, to our absolute amazement Youngest Granddaughter opening her Christmas presents displayed some sort of, well I won't use the word innate, but definitely some sort of bias. Eight months old, never played with a doll before [has a very Politically Correct mother fortunately] We bought her some brightly coloured trains - which she liked and played with but when she unwrapped the baby doll which I will admit to buying because I liked it she was so over excited she kissed and kissed it and kept going back to playing with it. My only theory is that she plays with a lot of other babies and kisses them a lot [!] and sees this as another! I did try to do the gender balance in the Christmas shopping but I am also human and I did like the doll but equally the trains!

  8. In answer to the second Anonymous posted at 7.30 - no it was not anecdota and was 'proper' research 'out in the field' under controlled conditions submitted as part of a degree project and therefore supervised back at the uni.

    I don't 'admit' younger children around eighteen months play with whatever is put in front of them, that was the findings on observation of groups of the youngest age group who were able to move about and choose. They would move from [say] table to table containing different toys what ever and regardless of the 'gender value' of a set of toys.

    [Smaller, just sitting up babies who cannot move obviously play with whatever is put in front of them. So maybe here could be the beginnings of 'gender indoctrination' if mothers/carers only give girls dolls and boys cars. A different study over a longer period of years with a control group would be needed for these type of conclusions]

    But by the age of two and a half to three *mostly* the gender preferences [whatever the cause] seem to be in place.

    Because the findings of my research surprised me I have continued to observe [and here is the anectdotal bit] in my own children and grandchildren whether or not that trend is repeated and it does seem to have followed the same pattern.

    We cannot deny the trend. I have taught teenagers and have had young girls who refuse to do certain subjects because they might break their nails. Also young boys who don't want to shine in certain subjects in case they are called 'geeks'. Other problems which need to be addressed whether cultural or innate!

  9. I see what you are implying that whether or not nurture has caused this, the desire to follow it is inborn. In that case it is only the desire to be socially at one with their peers that is innate. That has nothing to do with innate performance of the social gender constructs that we have defined. Outside influence has EVERYTHING to do with gender.

    You categorically cannot present your own particular experiences when promoting something as conclusive - it's simply irrelevant, it means nothing. We can observe trends but that isn't how we define conclusive evidence. I appreciate you have an opinion but I personally would hesitate to put yourself forward as an authority on this. On some levels it could maybe even considered unethical. You must do some further reading on this.

  10. To Anonymous @ 20:38
    I am tired of repeating that the research I did originally was under controlled conditions and properly documented. My concerns with the sort of comments you are making is that you are not accepting that the conclusions drawn on the documented results are SO. You seem to want to dismiss results which do not chime with what you want to read. That too could be considered unethical! What has caused the results is not important in discussing the results.

    Further research in how to stop this happening in the future is the subject for a whole different discussion. I agree that children should be encouraged to widen their choices - at the moment this is not happening for whatever reason. So we have to redress the balance by acting NOW on the results NOW.

    Thank you for your patronising tone regarding current research and reading, I have done this but cannot see at the moment that much is being done to stop the trends happening as they have been for at least the last 20 years. Walk down any High Street even in small villages and the only shops which seem to be opening up are often Nail Bars and Beauty parlours. Not in themselves a bad thing but they add to the cultural influences on young girls, for example.

  11. Although not doubting your research I am just wondering if you ever saw the research with very small babies where they dressed the same baby in either a pink babygro or a blue one and handed it to a couple. The way the babies were held and played with was totally different yet it was actually the same baby. The girl was held more and the boy moved more. Doesn't this show that we treat them differently from the off?

  12. I definitely think kids immediately start to follow their role-models once they reach that developmental stage. In their infancy, they are basically sponges just absorbing and growing and bonding, taking in everything. They will want to do what they see their parents and siblings of the same gender doing - ie putting on make-up, wearing dresses, doing housework (especially if they have a stay-at-home mom) -- whereas for boys it's often repairs, activities like sports, and wearing ball-caps.

    It would be interesting to do a study like this with control groups for parents with more tradiational roles vs non-tradiational roles (ie stay-at-home Dads) and also to control the media recieved.

  13. I do agree Lain about how interesting a study that would be. I also think that in the last twenty years ago the 'traditional' family in the Western cultures has changed quite a bit so to examine familial influences there would be lots of different areas to explore: parents who share the caring roles either in one home or in two for example.
    What concerns me still is that children and young people can become entrenched in their gender 'roles' and thus give up on certain areas - thus my example of the positive aspects of pink Lego which seems to have been misunderstood a bit!
    Another area that worries me is when one hears a parent/carer of either sex say to a young lad 'You don't want to do that, it is for girls' when he wants to sit and read a book or some other less boisterous activity. So some of the causes of these influences need addressing from a different angle?
    Thank you for your interesting comment.

  14. To Anonymous @ 1.07
    Sorry, I am answering these comments in reverse order, I must do better....
    Thank you for your comment. Yes I have seen this research and it is interesting and reinforces my last comment in reply to Lain. My research looked at the choices children made and at what age - the 'why' they made those choices is the subject of other researches and the one you describe being one of them.
    Because these 'causes' are so deep rooted it is going to take a lot to change what are really prejudices I suppose. If those holding the babies had been questioned why they had acted in the way they had I wonder what they would have said and whether they would have been aware of their differing 'methods' according to the perceived sex of the child? If the same baby had been presented dressed in white or a neutral colour what would the reaction have been?
    A lot more to think about. Thank you.