Gender-specific toys: It's not just child's play

Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah hit headlines last week when she led a debate about gender-specific toys. Here she explains why the issue is bigger than Barbie

Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah
Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah

This September it will be exactly 30 years since I left home in Newcastle to study Electrical Engineering in London.

As I boarded the National Express bus I aware that only 12% of my fellow students would be women.

What I didn’t know and could not have imagined, was that three decades later the proportion of women studying engineering in the UK would not have improved at all.

I had a fantastic career as an engineer, with well paid jobs in the UK, France, the US and Nigeria. It was always a mainly and even sometimes all male environment.

But it is only now when I walk into a toy store that I feel I am experiencing gender segregation.

That is why I decided to call a debate in Westminster on the marketing of children’s toys. At some point over the last three decades the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to figure out what to buy without colour coded gender labelling.

And that means Science Museum toy kits labelled for boys whilst miniature dustpans and brushes are “girls stuff”, according to Sports Direct.

This aggressive gender segregation is a consequence of big company marketing tactics. As every successful marketeer knows, differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives you a bigger market overall.

So with three-year-old girls only being able to “choose” pink tricycles then the manufacturer can charge more for that special girlie shade with a premium Princess saddle. And of course that trike can’t be handed on to a brother or nephew ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars.

It has now got to the point where it is almost impossible to buy toys for girls which are not pink, princess primed and/or fairy infused.

But what may be driving big company profit margins is limiting children’s choices. And ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential whilst helping maintain the gender pay gap.

I know there are many factors keeping women and girls out of science and engineering, from old fashioned sexism to parental preference for what they consider “clean” professions.

But what made me focus on toys was a letter I received in 2012 from a constituent about Boots in Eldon Square.

“The children’s toys section displays signs saying ‘girls’ toys’ and ‘boys’ toys’ above the shelves,” she wrote. “It discourages boys from playing with dolls, and girls from playing with Lego.”

Another constituent wrote to me of the difficulties of avoiding gender stereotypes.

“I have a little girl of four years old,” she wrote, “and I have always been very careful to ensure that she never feels that as a female she can or can’t play with certain toys. Recently she is starting to come out with sentences like ‘I cant play with that mummy, that’s a boy’s toy’. That’s yucky!”

Another constituent complained that in Gateshead Toys ‘r’ us, the Lego police helicopter had a sign in front of it that Lego Friends was to be found in the girls’ aisle next door. So police helicopters are not for girls.

There was also this letter from seven-year-old Charlotte complaining to Lego about their girls’ range, which went recently viral on the internet:

“All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks. I want you to make more Lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun, ok!?!”

An organisation called Sciencegrrl sent me this post: “Recently I bought my daughter new pyjamas, they were from the ‘boys’ section in M&S. They had robots on. My daughter spent about an hour before bed time pretending to be a robot and we talked about electronics and space.”

As the last comment suggests, there is a link between child’s play, how their imagination is inspired, and the careers they choose. This is not only an issue of social justice, it is a question of UK competitiveness and a key factor in the gender pay gap – traditionally male jobs pay more than traditionally female ones.

At 6% the UK has the lowest proportion of female professional engineers in the EU. India, where the rate of literacy for women is significantly less than for men, still manages to attract more women into science and technology than we do.

I know the cost of living crisis is the primary concern for most of my constituents, but this is about our economy in the decades to come.

It’s particularly important in the North East, with our long history of engineering innovation - how can we compete with China and India if half our children are told it’s not for them?

There are also wider consequences. Big social questions like climate change, healthy ageing, genetically modified foods and population control have science at their heart. Why should girls be excluded from them?

The campaigning group Let toys be toys found that 72% of toy stores use boy/girl stereotypes to identify toys. The worst was Morrisons – though they did write to me to say they were planning to arrange products based on their cost and end the use of blue and pink. Tesco had the worst catalogue and Debenhams the worst website.

The best were Hobbycraft, Toymaster and our own Fenwicks. Boots, by the way, have changed their signs since I wrote to them on behalf of my constituent.

I am not saying pink should be outlawed or parents made to feel guilty for buying their daughter a Disney Princess.

I am not calling for legalisation - though some do point out that it is illegal to advertise a job as for men only but apparently fine to advertise a toy as for boys only.

I am simply saying parents and children should be able to make their own choices without being told this is for a boy, and that is for a girl.

And that girls should not be brought up in an all pink environment. It simply does not reflect the real world.

Had anyone attempted to give me a pink soldering iron when I was designing circuit boards they would have found my use of it not at all in accordance with their health and safety.


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