Opinion: if we believe in giving all children equal opportunities, why does toy design and marketing remain so heavily gender-stereotyped?

By Dr Debbie Ging and Dr Padraig Murphy, Dublin City University

There is widespread agreement among educators, sociologists and developmental psychologists that children’s play is an important aspect of their educational development. So, if we believe in giving all children equal opportunities, why does toy design and marketing remain so heavily gender-stereotyped?

In addition to the economic benefits of marketing different products to two different demographics, the recent resurgence in the popularity of brain science is partly to blame. Much neuroscientific scholarship is heavily invested in the idea that children are hardwired to select and excel at certain types of play, positing that boys are better at spatial reasoning and girls are better at collaborative play.

There is a serious disconnect between how people think about gender equality in the workplace and how they think about it in relation to children’s play

This research is problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, it focuses on the differences between men and women and ignores the differences among them, which are substantially greater on almost every count. Secondly, it ignores the fact that nurture and nature are not diametrically opposed but rather co-constitutive as nurture, the environment and the social change the brain over time.

More recently, a growing number of neuroscientists have begun to challenge the methodologies used in this field, pointing out their non-replicability as well as their denial of the role played by learning and practice in determining social and cognitive sex differences. For example, Lise Eliot, Professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and author of the ironically titled book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, has demonstrated how neuroplasticity (the adaptation of the brain to environment) is the primary factor in shaping children's gender development.

Despite this, neurosexism remains a powerful and pervasive set of ideas, not least because it locates social problems within the bodies of individuals and thus elicits individual rather than systemic solutions. It is precisely this populist brain science that inspired Google engineer James Damore to claim that biology was preventing women from filling top technology executive positions. Damore’s comments caused outrage and he was fired.

Yet in the context of toy design and advertising, Damore’s brand of sexism is not only acceptable but the norm. This sector is characterised by extreme gender polarization. "Boy toys" typically encourage action, reasoning, strategy and construction, while "girl toys" tend to emphasise nurturing, social interaction and self-adornment. Gender-neutral toys and video games are almost impossible to find and it is rare to see toy adverts that show boys and girls playing together. There is a serious disconnect, therefore, between how most people think about gender equality in the workplace and how they think about it in relation to children’s play and socialisation.

The drive toward gender equality in STEM needs to be coupled with encouraging boys into arts, nursing and other traditionally feminine domains

This contradiction is all the more alarming when we consider what the sociological and neuroplasticity research tells us. Toys have a substantial impact on the development of children’s cognitive and social skills, their perception of self and their career aspirations. This does not bode well for initiatives that seek to encourage girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers.

Research recently conducted in the UK by the Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET) found that toys with a STEM focus were three times more likely to be targeted at boys than girls. This most likely has a significant impact on children’s choices later on. In Ireland, figures from the Central Statistics Office show that  7,458 boys opted to take Physics compared with 2,202 girls in mixed schools in 2017. The European Commission 2012 study of gender in science jobs shows that only 7.9 percent of science professors in 2010 were women.

Attempts to challenge the gender straight-jacketing of children’s play tend to favour girls entering typically masculine domains, such as Lego’s Women of NASA set launched this year. While these are praiseworthy initiatives, the drive toward gender equality in STEM needs to be coupled with similar initiatives aimed at encouraging boys into arts, nursing and other traditionally feminine domains. After all, one of the main reasons why the revolution has become stalled – to use Arlie Hochschild’s phrase - is that women have entered the full-time labor force and made successful incursions into male-dominated fields, but men have not equally moved into female-dominated fields or assumed responsibility for household labour and childcare.

Toys have a substantial impact on the development of children’s cognitive and social skills, their perception of self and their career aspirations

Recent campaigns such as Let Toys be Toys and Play Unlimited and companies such as Wondernik, GoldieBlox and Toy Planet have begun to push back against the stereotypes in both directions. Drawing on the above-mentioned research, they encourage toy buyers to think of their gifts not just as playthings, but as tools of socialisation and cognitive development that could have a significant impact on how children perceive themselves, their abilities and their future aspirations.

Dr Debbie Ging is an Associate Professor in the School of Communications at DCU. Dr Pádraig Murphy is Assistant Professor in Communications and Chair of the MSc in Science Communication programme at DCU


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ