CHILDREN’S dreams are being decided by companies and shops marketing toys as either for boys or for girls, a Government minister has said.
Business minister Jenny Willott insisted youngsters should not be made to feel guilty or ashamed for experimenting with different toys, adding boys should feel free to play with a pushchair and girls to kick a football.
She told MPs it was fundamental to the UK economy’s future to tackle gender-specific marketing of toys, adding the recent phenomenon to target blue at boys and pink at girls could prevent children from discovering their talents.
Ms Willott joked that Space Hoppers would not be iconic orange if they were invented today, suggesting they would be pink and resemble a cupcake for girls and camouflaged and khaki-coloured for boys.
Gender-specific approaches are not fair on children as they learn constantly about how they are supposed to feel, behave and what would make them acceptable to their social group and family, Ms Willott said.
The Liberal Democrat said there were skills shortages across science, technology, engineering and maths, which would remain as long as girls continued to feel that world was not for them.
High-quality, rigorous research was required to help guide parents, teachers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers in the “right and responsible way forward”, Ms Willott added.
The minister was speaking during a Westminster Hall debate on gender-specific marketing of children’s toys, an issue led by Labour’s Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central.
The shadow minister criticised “big company marketing tactics” for leading to “aggressive gender segregation”.
Ms Onwurah said she worked as a professional engineer in three continents over two decades where she encountered a male-dominated environment.
But she insisted she only felt she was really experiencing gender segregation when she walked into a toy shop.
Replying for the Government, Ms Willott said: “It’s not fair to make little girls feel that they shouldn’t be kicking footballs or building with Lego and it’s not fair to make little boys feel ashamed of playing netball or playing with a pushchair or pushing a doll along or whatever.
“Children shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or feel ashamed about experimenting with different toys and different kinds of play.
“That is what we’re doing effectively by sort of implicitly labelling toys as ‘not for you’ and it starts at a very young age.
“Children learn through play and if we want children to explore their skills and their interests and to develop fully to the limits of their potential we musn’t limit that at the age of two or five or 10 by restricting their choices of play.
“A boy who has never had a sewing kit might never discover his talent for design and a girl who has never had a Meccano set may never discover she has real potential as an engineer.
“Clearly not every girl that plays with Lego is going to be an architect... but why should we limit girls’ aspirations at so early an age by making it so rigidly defined?”
Ms Willott, picking up on points raised by Ms Onwurah on the impact of the marketing, said: “It is a really important issue and it’s fundamentally important to our economy as well, it’s not just a side issue as I think it sometimes can be portrayed.
“It is a really important one to the future economy of this country.
“All of us who have young children can’t help but be aware of how highly gendered children’s toys are.”
Ms Willott said she had two young sons, adding: “My house is entirely full of things that are blue and there is very little pink that comes anywhere near through my front door.
“But you can very easily see at a glance when you go into a shop what is intended for a girl and what is intended for a boy.”
She went on in her response to Ms Onwurah: “What message is it sending out?
“What are we telling our children?
“We’re telling them that girls and boys are different.
“They like different things, they have different interests and different skills and we’re telling them their gender defines the roles they will play in society well into the future and defines what dreams they may have about the future as well.
“Pink for girls and blue for boys, these associations are often talked about as if they are fixed, natural, never-changing and so on, but as you said it’s a very recent phenomenon and in fact I saw an article a couple of years ago that referred to advice for new parents from the beginning of the last century, so about 100 years ago, which urged parents to dress their boys in pink because it was such a definite colour and to leave wishy-washy blue for little girls.
“So it just shows quite how these things can change over time.”
Ms Willott said photos of toys advertised in the 1970s showed a lot more bright colours and both boys and girls playing with them.
She said: “One thing is for sure, and I think it’s very true, if they invented the Space Hopper today it would not be an iconic orange, there would be one that would be pink and look like a cupcake and there would be one that would be a sort of camouflaged khaki.
“And it just shows how much things have changed over the years.”
During her speech to introduce the debate, Ms Onwurah said she wanted her niece and nephew to grow up in a world where toys were toys and not “colour-coded constraints on their choices”.
She told MPs there had been no increase in women undertaking engineering degrees compared to 30 years ago while the UK had the lowest proportion of female professional engineers in Europe at 6%.
Ms Onwurah warned the marketing approach could lock-out girls from pursuing careers in male-dominated industries.
She said: “I am not calling for legislation.
“But others do observe that it is illegal to advertise a job as for men only but apparently fine to advertise a toy as for boys only.
“Why should girls be brought up in an all-pink environment?
“It does not reflect the real world.”
Earlier, the Labour MP outlined the experience of a toy shop compared to her time working as a professional engineer.
She said: “It’s only when I walk into a toy shop that I feel I am really experiencing gender-segregation.
“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 toys labelled for boys while miniature dustpan and brushes are girls stuff, according to Sports Direct.
“And I say over the last three decades because there was a time when toys were toys and blue and pink were just colours.”
Ms Onwurah said an Argos catalogue from 1976 listed toy houses and prams in different colours but now they were only sold in pink.
She went on: “Recently a Lego advert from 1981 went viral on the internet because it showed a girl proudly clasping her latest Lego creation, none of the text was gender-specific and the girl was actually wearing blue.
“So what happened?
“Did some dye the Y chromosome blue in the 80s or force the X chromosome to secrete only pink hormones?
“No, this aggressive gender-segregation is a consequence of big company marketing tactics.”
Ms Onwurah said dividing the market into segments increased the profit margin, adding: “With three-year-old girls only being able to choose pink tricycles then the manufacturer can charge more for that special girly shade of pink and the premium princess saddle and of course that trike can’t be handed over to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars.
“It’s now got to the point where it is difficult to buy toys for girls in particular, which are not pink, princess-primed and/or fairy-infused.”
The MP said craft markets tended to have a range of colours for boys and girls.
She said: “But what may be driving big company profit-margin is limiting our children’s choices and their experiences.
“And it’s ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential as well as helping to maintain the gender pay gap.”
The lack of women in science and engineering has been a matter of real concern for a long time, Ms Onwurah said.
She also quoted an example from a seven-year-old girl who wrote to Lego about their range for girls.
The MP said the girl had written: “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!?!”