[A report from Code For Africa, aimed at amplifying the Gender Gap conversation]
Boys like blue, girls like pink. Boys like cars, girls like dolls. Boys like adventure, action and explosions. Girls like being pretty, fantasy and housekeeping. Boys grow up to be doctors, professors, CEOs and leaders. Girls grow up to be nurses, children’s school teachers, secretaries and housewives. See a trend? Most psychologists do.
In 2015, The White House made international headlines for hosting a conference on gender-segregated toys. Several children’s media and toys monoliths, Mattel, Toys R’ Us and Disney were all present. The goal was to change negative gender stereotypes in children’s toys. But are these actually harmful?
Gender psychologist and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, Christia Spears Brown says, “When toys are segregated by gender, children avoid the toys for the other gender. Experimental studies show that it has nothing to do with the toy itself, but boys don’t want to play with the toy if they think it’s a girl’s toy and vice versa.
This is damaging because toys are how children learn and develop skills, such as hand-to-eye coordination, perspective taking, care-taking and fine motor skills. All children need to develop these skills. When we limit the practice of these skills to only half of the children we limit what children can become. To use dolls as an example, dolls teach care-taking and nurturance. Those are important skills for both girls and boys. ”
‘Girls’ toys are marketed to teach girls to focus on domestic tasks: babies and housework. They are also often sexualized and focused on appearance. Research shows that playing with Barbies, for example, can lead girls to have a more negative image of their bodies than playing with more normal sized dolls. Boys’ toys aren’t that much better though, they are often marketed to focus on aggression and violence. That’s a harmful message for everyone.”
“Toys lay the foundation for the skills children develop and the interests children hone. Buying a science toy won’t make a child become a scientist, but it does help a child become more comfortable with scientific ideas. So toys can lay the foundation that children can build from.”
“We need to ignore how toys are marketed. Buy a range of toys for all children. Focus on the skills that the toys teach, not how a toy company decided how to sell the toy. Parents should ask themselves whether the toy helps their individual child develop good skills or foster important traits.”
But outside of psychological study does this have any effect in real life?
Mrs Doherty, a mother of four and an investment banker says,“The toys have a terrible influence. Anyone who thinks they don’t just needs to ask any child. If you ask a boy what he wants to be, it’s an engineer, a doctor, all real, potential jobs.
“You ask a girl what she wants to be, a princess, a ballerina, a pop star. We teach girls rubbish then act confused when they grow up and do nothing with their lives. They become housewives or gold diggers and we try to shame them but it’s all we’ve ever taught them.”
Ms. Dana Akinpelu, mother to an only daughter, gives a unique perspective. “I agree they establish gender roles but I don’t see why that’s a bad thing. It prepares you for the real world. I was a tomboy growing up and I was constantly bullied by my peers and was always in trouble with teachers.
“Even when girls get into male- dominated fields they’re not taken seriously. I’d rather my daughter grew up fitting in, she’ll be happier. If she wants to take a different path when she’s older I’ll still support her. But for now, I’d rather she developed according to the rules of society.”
Mrs Osobu, a mother of twin boys, says it’s a regular part of everyday life: “We all do things we don’t want to do but do because it’s expected of us. If you leave babies alone they will play with any toy, they don’t care. But as they grow older they learn the way society works and start showing preferences because you expect them to.
My sons often pick up things that are for girls, colouring books with butterflies and princesses in them. It’s their father who tells them no it’s for girls and teaches them there’s a divide. I think it’s harmful for boys too. Boys who like to dance or sing or want to endeavor in the performing arts that isn’t masculine-like ballet or singing R n’ B-will always face inhibitors.”
Mrs. Nnoruka, a stay at home mother of a two year old boy and a five year old girl, argues that girls’ toys limit girls emotionally and occupationally: “I went to a party once, for three-year-old twins. They gave the boy a toy car and they gave the girl a vanity set. What does a three-year-old child need with a vanity set? We always make young girls think they have to look nice. Boys are allowed to run around and get dirty but girls are seen as a representation of the household.
“They must behave while the boys are allowed to go crazy. Toys enforce this! Boys always get action focused things but girls are expected to say indoors, their toys are toy kitchens and baby dolls. But things are beginning to change now, I saw a toy shop when I went to a toy store once. It was for girls and it had a calculator and a toy cash machine. Things like that will encourage girls to think, not just look pretty.”
Toys can influence skills and shape how children see the future and the possibilities open to them. But do our toys today impose gender roles or represent natural deviations? Psychologists say yes, what do you think?