Is changing the visual landscape for our children important?

If you go into any supermarket you will see rows of pink and purple separated from rows of dark greens and navy. On the surface this is no more than a visual maker, making products for boys and girls easy to spot amongst the clutter; thus increasing sales as Grandma and Grandad quickly head to the princess section to get a surprise for their little poppet.

Take more time to look and you can see that all the science, doing, building and logic toys are stacked up within ‘boys shelves’. While the hair, shopping, friends and trivia are waiting in their pretty pink and purple packets ready to leap into the open hands of our girls.

For me the problem is not just the palette: it’s this message that science and logic are not for girls.

Dinosaurs not for girls.

Adventure not for girls.

Lego not for girls (unless its pink and you build a hair salon)

Flowers not for boys.

Childcare not for boys.

The whole thing is just messed up.

The most appalling part of this puzzle is that this situation is not the result of conscious oppression of women. It’s not a simple tyrant that we need to seek out and over throw. This situation has developed because of a combination of apathy and greed. Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of “Redefining Girly” examines where parents should be looking to solve the puzzle of why young girls are stereotyped and sexualized: she blamed not just the toys themselves but also the advertising for solidifying gender norms.

Girls and boys have never been marketed to so aggressively before. Marketers began to segregate the market place in the 1930’s and seeing sales increase each company has continued to research and separate off market segments ever since. Hasbro girls range is currently estimated at $1.9 billion, while Hasbro’s net worth is a staggering $7.2 billion. Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland explains: “Children weren’t colour-coded at all until the early 20th century: in the era before domestic washing machines all babies wore white as a practical matter, since the only way of getting clothes clean was to boil them. What’s more, both boys and girls wore what were thought of as gender-neutral dresses. When nursery colours were introduced, pink was actually considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red, which was associated with strength. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, symbolised femininity.”

As those research budgets increased, and sales followed the walls of pink and blue went up. Built on the foundations of gender difference rather than species commonality.

Does it make any difference to children?

As Elizabeth Sweet, a doctoral candidate who studies gender and toys at the University of California explains “Gendered toy marketing divides a child’s ability to learn about the world based on gender constructions that are culturally determined. When all of the marketing consistently revolves around gender, it teaches our kids to look at the opposite sex as a different species, because in order to market gendered toys, you have to point out the difference and not the similarities.”

We know that persistent stereotypes in academia are at the core of inequality in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Despite efforts to promote gender equality in the science and tech sectors, the percentage of STEM jobs held women was about the same in 2017 as it was in 2009, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Currently, only a seventh of all engineers is female, and women hold just 27 percent of all computer science jobs, according to that same report.

For me, it’s not just about career outcomes for children. It’s about setting up the stereotypes that limit every aspect of our species.  According to the Study of Sociology, “A stereotype is a rigid, oversimplified, often exaggerated belief that is applied both to an entire social category of people and to each individual within it. Stereotypes form the basis for prejudice, which in turn is used to justify discrimination and attitudes.”

Now in 2017, surely this is a thing of the past? We can take Barbie as a great example of a toy and toy maker modernising their content, or can we? Barbie has started to code and engineer: but still her aesthetic perpetuates gender norms. Sweet explains: “Even at her best, she still has to wear pink, conform to a beauty ideal and use a different set of tools than the boys. I don’t think that’s the best tool to get girls thinking they can play on a level playing field.”

This sociological rhetoric translates into the daily play of my two girls. When my big girl comes home from school and tells me that she can’t wear her astronaut top because the other girls say it’s not ‘girlie’ (it’s dark green, not a light pastel) So all the astronaut stuff becomes a home activity, hidden away from her mates: because she so wants, she needs at her young age to belong to the group. I read an article years ago by Peggy Orenstein, Author of Cinderella ate my Daughter and she put it so well:

“Oh, how the mighty fall. All it took was one boy who, while whizzing past her in the playground, yelled, “Girls don’t like trains!” and Thomas was shoved to the bottom of the toy chest. Within a month, Daisy threw a tantrum when I tried to wrestle her into trousers. As if by osmosis she had learned the names and gown colours of every Disney Princess – I didn’t even know what a Disney Princess was. She gazed longingly into the tulle-draped windows of the local toy stores and for her third birthday begged for a “real princess dress” with matching plastic high heels. Meanwhile, one of her classmates, the one with two mummies, showed up to school every single day dressed in a Cinderella gown. With a bridal veil…..It’s not that pink is intrinsically bad, but it is such a tiny slice of the rainbow and, though it may celebrate girlhood in one way, it also repeatedly and firmly fuses girls’ identity to appearance.”

Of course it is impossible to separate out what’s biological as opposed to what’s cultural.  Young children respond to gender stereotypes because they are ordering in their mind what it means to be a girl or a boy. It is a simplifying mechanism: ‘Pink is for girls, and I’m a girl, so I like pink,’ and those who don’t conform to these cultural expectations face real social sanctions, like bullying.

It is these patterns that shape and form our society. Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain says, nurture becomes nature. “Think about language. Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds and grammar and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires itself up to only perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, it’s possible to learn another language, but it’s far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly: the ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. That contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.”

So what can we do?

We can protect and shelter our children from the tidal wave of pink and blue marketing: but was never one just to protect me and mine then hide away.

I believe all of those of us who can stand and make a change, should.
I can draw – so this is my resistance. If you can write – then create new books – tell a new story: if you can sing – sing them a new song. As mothers and fathers we are the storytellers: this is our super power because it is the storytellers who can change the world.

Be brave, be dauntless and tell them a new story.

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