Could Your Toy Choices Help Close the Gender Gap?

Cheryl Lock

gendered toysWhen I was young, my sister and I would sit in the den for hours playing with dolls. Our Barbies were flight attendants, ballerinas and nurses, among other stereotypically female professions.

Of course this was (ahem) a couple years ago.

These days, kids don’t take stereotypes sitting down. Take, for example, eighth grader McKenna Pope, who was so annoyed by the fact that Easy-Bake Ovens only have advertisements featuring girls, and that they only come in purple and pink, that she started a petition calling for Hasbro to keep their gender stereotyping in check. (Hasbro will release a more gender-neutral version next year.)

Hasbro isn’t the only toy company taking notice. We took a deeper look at this trend toward breaking gender norms: What other changes are afoot … and how much will this really matter for your child’s future?

Companies Changing Their Approach

First, there was the Christmas 2012 Swedish Toys “R” Us catalog touting girls with Nerf guns and little boys playing with baby dolls. Then there was Harrods, London’s famous department store, which made headlines last year for its new gender-neutral toy department, which grouped toys by theme rather than by gender.

Perhaps taking a cue from overseas, Mattel is introducing a Barbie construction set and Lego is promoting a line of pastel construction toys. Construction toys aimed at girls represented about 20% of the toy construction category by the end of 2012, compared to just a handful of products the year before. With more dads buying toys for their kids than ever before, this shift makes sense as some toy companies market products through the lens of what dads are more likely to buy.

There’s evidence that the shift in tactics isn’t just to appease feminists, either. In one study, girls spent more time playing with mechanical toys than any other kind, and “the toys that kept the girls’ attention the longest were neutral stereotyped toys, followed by the male stereotyped toys and the female stereotyped toys.” To wit, given the option, many girls don’t even like “girly” toys.

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“It most likely was a marketing thing to have a boys’ and girls’ aisle, and it may have been easier for people to shop that way,” says Dr. Lawrence Balter, child psychologist and parenting expert. Even if stores are changing their methods with the ultimate goal of making money, he says, “arranging the store this way is more in line with what we’re trying to teach kids, to make things gender neutral, so in the end, that’s probably a good thing.”

How Toys Shape Our Worldview

It’s easy to buy toy kitchen utensils for girls and model airplanes for boys without another thought—but there may be reasons not to.

Back to those Barbies in my childhood den: Might playing with Barbies when I was young have influenced my own career path, and my decision to become a writer and editor? (Barbie was an editor back in 1960.) According to research out of Washington and Lee, dressing Barbie up in uniforms for stereotypically male fields—like as a firefighter or an astronaut—could influence whether girls view themselves as capable of working in those industries.

  • bcalnyc

    Would somebody please get McDonald’s to pay attention? If I get asked one more time if I want a “boy” or “girl” toy rather than say, a Barbie or a Hexbug, I will scream. Worse yet, they often assume which type of toy my child wants without asking (he happens to be a boy, with very long hair, who will tell you in no uncertain terms that there is nothing “girly” or “boy-y”) sticking us with toys we don’t want.(and let’s face it, I ONLY go to McD’s for the toys)