This article was originally published in The Oxford Student newspaper.
You may have noticed shops changing across the country. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign has already convinced stores such as M&S and Toys R Us to drop their gendered marketing, with all toys now accessible to boy or girl, labelled instead by category. The distinction may seem subtle, but it raises an important issue about the role that gendered stereotyping plays in our society.
You may think this petty, as you find yourself lost among aisles of gender neutral toys, bewildered amongst presents, unsure of which are socially acceptable for you to give to your niece or nephew. Yet the argument is clear; a child enjoys activities because of their interests, not because of their gender. Why then, do we limit certain hobbies to children of a certain gender, should our kids not be free to play in any way they want to? In a society that so readily propagates stereotyping, even our gifts come laced with a pressure to conform to pre-determined gender roles, decided long ago by injustice and naivety.
Yet this debate encompasses more than Christmas present choices. It raises important questions over what we teach our children, and the social dogmas that we instil. Through the toys we buy and activities we encourage, we are teaching kids a very important message; that before being yourself, you are a boy or a girl. And this label of gender comes with some assumed personality traits; boys are technical, good at sport and lively. Girls like looking pretty, are creative and polite. I’m sure I don’t need to highlight how ludicrous these claims are, yet they still resonate in our culture. But this doesn’t come without consequence.
I might point to sport; while 40.8% of men participate in weekly exercise, only 30.9% of women do. Is this a surprise, when boys are disproportionately encouraged to take up sport, while girls are guided towards dance, or music? Sport England points to a need for ‘families to be more supportive’ towards participation, acknowledging that we are currently teaching young girls to not enjoy sport, depriving them of a legitimate and beneficial interest.
A similar story can be seen in science; women make up only 6% of engineering staff across the UK, and are vastly under-represented in STEM subjects. This is again reflected in how we treat our children – boys are inundated with technical and problem-solving toys, while girls are encouraged to enjoy creative pursuits. Indeed, men suffer from gender stereotyping just as severely – the apparently ‘effeminate’ degree choices of English or Modern languages are consistently overlooked by boys – out of the applications Oxford University receive, less than 30% are from men.
In popular culture the effects of gender stereotyping are also clear. Sixty-seven year old David Bowie recently released a comeback album, which received widespread praise. Would it have been possible for a women of his age to re-enter the public sphere and be judged on ability and not how they look? You needn’t look very far – Cher’s recent performance on the X Factor last month was assessed by journalists not on her ability, but on her appearance. And this isn’t uncommon in the media – a TV presenter was recently warned about her ‘wrinkles’ by a BBC director. Is this really a surprise in a society obsessed with female, and exclusively female, image? Worse still, we continue to force this culture onto our children – we maintain that girls should dress as princesses to look pretty, while boys dress as superheroes to save the world. This gender stereotyping has very real, and very severe, consequences.
Gender roles also affect how our children deal with emotion – ‘be a big boy,’ and ‘be brave’ we say, while girls are encouraged to keep diaries, and speak with friends. Again, this propagates a society in which men often feel uncomfortable expressing emotions. A report by the mental health charity Mind comments that ‘growing boys are often discouraged from expressing “softer” emotions’ which forms ‘barriers to good mental health.’ Men are 3-4 times more likely to commit suicide than women – it is clear that this ‘boys don’t cry’ culture creates real problems in society.
Of course it would be foolish to attribute all of these issues entirely to the gifts we buy for our children. But the toy industry is a very obvious symbol of gender stereotyping, and a logical target for campaigners. A common defence of gender stereotyping is nature – we’re told that men and women are ‘wired’ to be different. In fact, journalists reported gleefully when a study was published earlier this month claiming that differences in ‘neural circuitry’ explain why women and men have different interests and talents.
Yet, despite widespread coverage, the media failed to highlight an important discovery of the study. The research showed that differences between male and female brains only begin to appear after the age of 14. Interestingly, brains continue to develop until adolescence, and via a process called neuroplasticity, neural circuits that are commonly used thrive and grow, whilst those that are not used die. As a result of this, a child who spends lots of time practising co-ordination, technical skills, or memory, will have specific neural circuits develop to a greater extent.
Hence, it is possible that the differences in male and female brains are a result of upbringing and not any natural, pre-determined cause. It is therefore likely that as well as putting pressure on children to act in a certain way, gender stereotyping is affecting the development, and therefore structure, of our children’s brains. We may be conditioning children to develop certain strengths based on the activities we encourage them to participate in, via the alarming self-fulfilling prophecy of gender stereotyping.
Whether by pressurising children to conform to unfounded stereotypes, or by altering neurobiological development, it is clear that gender stereotyping is having grave consequences on children. If we really are dedicated to achieving not only gender equality, but a society where individuals are free to be themselves, then we need to confront the injustice of gender roles. And children’s toys might just be a good place to start.