Won’t somebody please think of the children?

We celebrated the tenth birthday of my little sister recently. She is a well-rounded individual who divides her time between netball, swimming, playing the flute, reading and tending to her ant farm. Selecting her annual birthday tribute is increasingly difficult, however. The girl already owns two game consoles, holds a controlling interest in the Lego…

We celebrated the tenth birthday of my little sister recently. She is a well-rounded individual who divides her time between netball, swimming, playing the flute, reading and tending to her ant farm. Selecting her annual birthday tribute is increasingly difficult, however. The girl already owns two game consoles, holds a controlling interest in the Lego Group and Australian Geographic, and commands a squadron of radio control vehicles to rival the USAF drone program. In desperation, I strayed into Toys ‘R’ Us and explained my plight.

“Well, we have dresses, and doll stuff. Um… There’s a girl section called Totally Me, which has jewellery and so forth. Really popular – you can’t go wrong with that.”

“Right. Well let’s say she wants to be a pilot or a robotic engineer when she grows up?”

“Oh. We don’t really have engineering things for girls… You could try Meccano, but that’s more for boys.” I left the well-meaning assistant somewhere between Bratz and Barbie.

It is clear to anyone who has even the faintest contact with children that toys remain as deeply segregated as public toilets in a convent. They are manufactured, procured and branded according to an inviolable gender code: pink, dolls, vanity and domesticity for girls; blue, machines and combat for boys.

In some cases, toys are explicitly labelled as such. Until 2011, London’s flagship Hamleys toy store distinguished ‘boy’ floors from ‘girl’ floors. The Amazon website organises its wares into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ categories. According to Amazon, ‘boy’ brands consist of Lego, WWE, and Disney Planes. ‘Girl’ brands consist of Easy-Bake, Disney Princesses and all manner of fuschia miscellanea.

This taxonomy also emerges in stores that do not explicitly subscribe to the boy-girl dichotomy. Colour and toy type act as powerful signals for consumers and children as to the appropriateness of a particular toy for a particular gender. Big W does not need to signpost its aisles by sex: the walls of pink figurines speak for themselves (and quite literally too).

Challenging the design and marketing of gendered toys is not an abstract exercise so much as an urgent social and economic imperative. Low female representation in particular industries can be attributed to the way those sectors are represented to children. Thea Hughes is a former University of Sydney student and the founder of Play Unlimited, a campaign to eliminate gendered toy marketing. In 2013, pressure from the movement led Toys ‘R’ Us Australia to desegregate its website, and Hughes hopes to do the same for all retailers. “Toys and activities that kids perceive as being socially acceptable can influence whether kids view themselves as capable of working in those industries,” says Hughes via email. “I experienced the flow on effect first hand when working in petrochemicals: an absence of women due to a perception that this industry is ‘for men’.”

Earlier this year, Chi Onwurah MP aired similar concerns in a landmark speech to the UK House of Commons. A professional engineer with twenty years of experience in male-dominated industries, Ms Onwurah complained that “it is only when I walk into a toy shop that I feel I am really experiencing gender segregation… What happened? Did someone dye the Y chromosome blue in the ‘80s?”

Female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields is a perennial concern in Australia. According to the Office of the Chief Scientist, women constitute less than 14 percent of tertiary engineering enrolments. Research from the University of Sydney concludes that there is now a greater gender disparity in the proportion of HSC students studying maths and science than in the 1980s.

Yet policy solutions to this disparity tend to focus on secondary and tertiary education policy. Search further back through the chain of causation, and it is evident that part of the problem lies in the nursery. A body of research is emerging which holds that toys with overtly gendered design and branding diminish the career opportunities perceived by children. Professor Aurora Sherman from Oregon State University reports that girls playing with Barbie perceive fewer viable career prospects than boys, irrespective of what the doll is wearing. This is unwelcome news for Mattel as it rolls out its smartphone-equipped African-American Entrepreneur Barbie®. By comparison, girls thought themselves equally as capable as boys when playing with Mrs Potato Head, a starchy supporter of plus-sized body image.

Gendered toys suffer a constellation of other issues too. Professor Melissa Hines from the University of Cambridge argues that pink-blue segregation alienates boys from social toys like dolls and tea sets, suppressing their development of important communication skills. This stigma has a pernicious effect on relationships. “If it’s still insulting for a boy to be called a girl,” asks Hughes, “how does this ‘girls are inferior’ mindset translate to adult life? To the workplace?”

When approached by Honi, Hasbro reiterated that these branding practices are informed by existing patterns of consumer behaviour. “In [some] cases… consumer insights tell us that we need to come to market in ways that are more ‘boy-centric’ or ‘girl-centric’,” it said, citing its line of fluoro pink NERF Rebelle blasters released last year. Hasbro believes that responsibility rests with parents to select appropriate toys for their children.

Yet whilst industry sustains these distinctions, it is difficult for consumers and parents to change children’s perceptions of appropriate playtime norms. For the children brave enough to cross the aisle, gendered branding invites humiliation and self-doubt. For those children pledged to vacuous stereotypes, gendered branding circumscribes the scope of their imagination and their future potential.

Moreover, the usual arguments of responsible consumerism do not apply. Children are a particularly vulnerable class of consumers. “They just don’t have the same filters or ability to rationalise the advertising that bombards them,” says Hughes. The toy industry has an unusually determinative influence on the way they perceive the world.

Except for a handful of daring brands like Goldie Blox, however, gender desegregation is not a commercial priority. Corporate Responsibility Magazine routinely lists Mattel, Walt Disney and Hasbro among its top thirty best corporate citizens – each a purveyor of the pink princess paradigm. Gender and educational value are not featured among corporate social responsibility metrics. The websites of Lego, Hasbro, Mattel and their ilk draw attention instead to product safety, environmental sustainability, and workplace diversity as measures of ethical behaviour.

Efforts to reform are often sporadic and misguided. Lego introduced its buxom, pink, all-girl range of Lego Friends in 2011. Charlotte, age 7, was not impressed. “All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs,” she wrote to corporate headquarters this year. “The boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks.” Shortly after Charlotte posted her letter, Lego released a Research Institute set consisting entirely of female astronomers, palaeontologists and chemists. The set sold out online.

Perhaps the company is harking back to a bygone age of open-ended, desegregated play. In 1981, Lego released an ad for its aptly-named Universal Building Sets. A Pippi Longstocking lookalike dressed in blue proudly presents her nameless creation to the camera. The caption: What it is / is beautiful. It is a warming reminder that gender distinctions are not timeless and immutable.

Industry can shape and improve consumer behaviour, encouraging a more constructive and thoughtful pattern of gift-giving and child’s play. Breaking the cycle of gendered marketing, gendered play, and gendered imagination requires proactive corporate leadership instead of reactive product marketing. Abandoning lazy stereotypes is not ideologically ambitious so much as desperately overdue – an urgent antidote to a generational lobotomy. It starts with a colour-blind vision for toys, commensurate with our vision for life.