Skip to main content

Children’s Toys (Gender–specific Marketing)

Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 5 February 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on such an important topic, Mr Hood. I can think of few questions that occupy parents of young children more than how their children can reach their full potential, and there are few long-term challenges that are more important than having a balanced, sustainable economy with science, engineering and manufacturing at its heart. That is what this debate is really about—or, to quote the name of one of the foremost campaigning groups on the subject, it is about why we need to let toys be toys.

Before entering Parliament, I spent two decades as a professional engineer, working across three continents. Regardless of where I was or the size of the company, it was always a predominantly male, or indeed all-male, environment, but it is only when I walk into a toy shop that I feel I am really experiencing gender segregation. At some point over the past 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—that means Science museum toys being labelled “for boys”, whereas miniature dustpans and brushes are “Girl Stuff”, according to SportsDirect.

I say over the past three decades, because there was a time when toys were toys and blue and pink were just colours. An Argos catalogue page from 1976 shows toy houses, prams and so on all in different colours. Now they only sell them in pink. 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.

What happened? Did someone 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. Every successful marketeer knows that differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives a bigger overall market, so with three-year-old girls only being able to “choose” pink tricycles, the manufacturer can charge more for that special girly shade of pink and the premium princess saddle. Of course, that trike cannot be handed over to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars. It has got to the point where it is difficult to buy toys for girls that are not pink, princess-primed and/or fairy-infused.

I go to craft markets, including the excellent ones at Grainger market, the Quayside in Newcastle, and Tynemouth station. At least there people can still find a range of colours for boys and girls, but what may be driving big-company profit margins is limiting our children’s choices and experiences. It is 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 long been a matter of real concern to me. As a child, I suffered from what I now call Marie Curie syndrome—the inability to name more than one woman scientist. During my career in engineering, I realised that many contributory factors were keeping women out, from old-fashioned sexism to parental preference for what were considered cleaner professions. As an MP, I became aware of organisations such as Pinkstinks, which was founded in 2008 to celebrate the fact that, as it put it,

“there’s more than one way to be a girl”.

In 2011, after a campaign by Laura Nelson, Hamleys on Regent street abandoned its pink girls’ floor and blue boys’ floor. That same year, Peggy Orenstein’s book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”, explored princess culture and how it is marketed to young girls. The recent complaints about Disney’s attempts to make over Merida, their one feisty, adventurous princess, into yet another pink replicant highlighted the dearth of non-aristocratic role-playing opportunities for girls.

What really made me focus on this issue was a letter that I received from a constituent about Boots in Eldon Square, Newcastle, where I often shop. She said:

“The children’s toys section…displays signs saying ‘girls’ toys’ and ‘boys’ toys’ above the shelves…This perpetuates gender stereotypes...discourages boys from playing with dolls, and girls from playing with Lego.”

At the same time, the group Let Toys Be Toys published a survey that found that half of stores used explicit “boys” and “girls” signs above shelves. It did a lot of work to highlight the impact of such signs on beliefs, attitudes and career choices, as well as the backlash from children and parents, unhappy that their children’s choices were being constrained. Let me quote a recent example from seven-year-old Charlotte, who wrote to Lego about their girls’ Lego range, Lego Friends:

“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!?!”

Yes to that, Charlotte.

I rise to apologise to the hon. Lady and to congratulate her. I apologise because I cannot stay for this debate, because of its new timing; I have a meeting to discuss precisely this issue with someone else in another place. I congratulate her on securing the debate, because this is an immensely important subject. I urge her to resist the criticism that I am sure she is receiving from reactionary voices, who say to her, “This is irrelevant. It is political correctness gone mad.” It is not. Such issues shape girls’ attitudes, particularly to science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM, subjects, and we must address that if we are to address the serious gender gap in engineering and science subjects. I congratulate her unreservedly on securing the debate.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I appreciate his words of support as well as the campaign that he is leading to encourage girls into engineering. It is true that there has been some suggestion that this is not an important debate for today. I know that the economy is the prime concern of my constituents right now, but this is about our long-term economy, our future society and our ability to compete in decades to come.

The issue is of interest to my constituents; another constituent wrote to complain that in the Gateshead Toys R Us, the Lego police helicopter has a sign in front of it telling people that the girls’ Lego range is round the corner in the girls’ aisle—so police helicopters are not part of the girls’ range. The campaigning group, ScienceGrrl, sent me this post from one of its members:

“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 that comment and the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) suggested, there is a link between children’s play, how their imagination is inspired and the careers they choose. Research from many sources, including Argos, interestingly, demonstrates that. Analysis from the Association of Colleges shows markedly different career preferences between girls and boys as young as seven, and that is also one of the reasons for the gender pay gap.

I regret that one of the Government’s first actions on coming to power was to end the funding for the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, which sought to provide a coherent strategy to promote gender balance in STEM. I got the impression that the Government saw their role as being to step back and let the market deliver, in what might be described as a “rising tide raises all boats” approach. However, when I started my engineering degree, 12% of my peers were women, and 30 years later, I am afraid to say that the proportion of female engineering students has not increased at all, so the market has not delivered. At 6%, the UK has the lowest proportion of female professional engineers in Europe. India, a country that has a significant gender literacy gap, manages to attract more women into STEM than we do.

That imbalance is a question not only of social justice but of UK competitiveness, and it is a key factor in the gender pay gap. Traditionally male jobs traditionally pay more than traditionally female ones. Key political and social questions about climate change, genetically modified food, healthy ageing and an expanding population have science and engineering at their heart, and I do not believe that it is acceptable to lock out 50% of our population from making their contribution on those important questions.

As the Government struggle to rebalance the economy towards engineering and manufacturing and away from short-term, housing-fuelled growth, I believe that there is support for a more proactive view. I welcome the recent strong support from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills for encouraging girls into STEM, and the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire’s vigorous campaign for more female engineers. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), also recently acknowledged the role of toys in putting girls off maths. With such cross-party consensus, and with active campaigning organisations such as Let Toys Be Toys, Pinkstinks, ScienceGrrl and the Everyday Sexism Project, I hope we will see real change.

The latest survey carried out by Let Toys Be Toys in November gave some grounds for optimism. It found that only a fifth, rather than half, of stores still used explicit gender labels, but 72% use gender cues such as colour coding. The best-performing toy stores were Hobbycraft, Toymaster and Fenwick—from Newcastle, although I am sure that that is coincidental—and the worst-performing store was Morrisons. I should say, however, that when it heard of my debate, Morrisons wrote to me to say that it plans to arrange products based on their cost, and to end the use of pink and blue. Tesco had the most gendered catalogue and Debenhams the most gendered website. Newcastle Boots has taken my constituents’ criticisms on board and no longer uses “girls” and “boys” signs to demark toys.

I hope that the debate helps industry to understand the importance that Parliament places on the matter, and the likely consequences of continued gender stereotyping. I would appreciate it if the Minister could clarify the Government’s position on the gender stereotyping of children’s toys and the impact that it has. What is the Minister doing to encourage more balanced marketing to children? What does she have to say to public sector organisations that may encourage stereotypical views of girls’ play? I am not calling for legislation. However, others have observed that it is illegal to advertise a job as being for men only, but apparently fine to advertise a toy as being for boys only.

Why should girls be brought up in an all-pink environment? That 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. Just as importantly, why can future fathers not play with dolls?

Yesterday, I became a proud aunt to twins, a girl and a boy. As one might imagine, I did not welcome them into the world with gender-specific or colour-coded toys. I hope that as they grow through childhood, they have the chance to play with toys that are toys, and not colour-coded constraints on their choices.

I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing a debate on this major issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) said earlier, the matter is important and of fundamental significance to our future economy; it is not just a side issue, which is how it can sometimes be portrayed.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central said, those of us with young children cannot help but be aware of how highly gendered children’s toys are. I should declare an interest in that I have two small boys, so my house is full of blue things—very little pink comes through my front door.

One can see at a glance when entering a shop what is intended for girls and what is intended for boys. As the hon. Lady said, that may be blatant—the shelf may say “girls” or “boys” on it—or otherwise girls’ and boys’ toys may be colour-coded or displayed in separate aisles. What message does that send out? What are we telling our children? We are telling them that girls and boys are different, that they like different things and that they have different interests and skills. We are telling them that their gender defines their roles in society and their dreams about the future.

“Pink is for girls and blue is for boys”—such associations are often discussed as though they were fixed, natural and unchanging. As the hon. Lady said, however, it is a recent phenomenon. A couple of years ago, I read an article that referred to advice for new parents from the beginning of the last century—some 100 years ago—that urged parents to dress their boys in pink, because it was such a definite colour, and to leave wishy-washy blue for little girls. That shows quite how much such things can change over time.

The hon. Lady mentioned that if we google images of children’s toys from the 1970s, we find images of a totally different array of toys from those of today. Some toys were certainly intended for girls and some for boys, but plenty were intended for both. We see far less pink and blue and far more bright primary colours, such as orange, yellow, green and red—I appreciate that those are not all technically primary colours—as opposed to pale, pastel colours.

I have with me some images of toys from the ’70s, including an orange toolbox, a blue kitchen and a blue and grey ice cream parlour with girls and boys playing in it. They are from only a couple of decades ago—during my own childhood—but they show a very different image of childhood. If the space hopper were invented today, it would not be iconic orange; there would be a pink version that looked like a cupcake and another version in camouflage khaki. That shows how much things have changed over the years.

Why does the gendering of toys matter? The subject can appear to be something of a fringe interest, but it matters to individuals because it is not fair. Children are actively learning all the time how they are supposed to feel and behave and what will make them acceptable to their social group, family and so on. It is not fair to make little girls feel that they should not be kicking footballs or building with Lego, and it is equally unfair to make little boys feel ashamed of playing netball or of pushing a doll along in a pushchair.

Children should not be made to feel guilty or ashamed about experimenting with different toys and different kinds of play, but that is what we are effectively doing by implicitly labelling toys “not for you”. That process starts at a young age. Children learn through play, and if we want them to explore their skills and interests and to develop to the limits of their potential, we must not restrict that at the age of two, five or 10 by restricting their choices of play.

A boy who has never had a sewing kit may never discover his talent for design. A girl who has never had a Meccano set may never discover that she has real potential as an engineer. Clearly, not every girl who plays with Lego is going to be an architect. I was excellent at designing Lego houses, but my future was obviously not in architecture. Nevertheless, why should we limit girls’ aspirations at so early an age by making things so rigidly defined?

As the hon. Lady said, the issue also matters to society and our economy more broadly. Today, women make an enormous contribution to the UK and there are more women in work than ever before, but they still do not have an equal chance to succeed. Women continue to earn less than men. We are under-represented in senior roles and over-represented in low-paying sectors. More women than men work part time or not at all. Some of that is down to the practical barriers that women face that can stop them getting on in work, and the Government are working with business to remove those barriers wherever we can find them, but some of it comes down to the simple fact that we do not encourage girls to believe in their own potential and explore the full range of their skills.

The way we play as children informs the skills we develop and how we perceive ourselves. Girls and boys take into the classroom assumptions that they develop as part of playing. That has a significant impact on how they then develop, and on their future career aspirations. It is therefore unsurprising that boys who have routinely experienced the sense of accomplishment associated with designing and building something, which can often can come from playing with what would be seen as a boy’s toy, feel more at home with subjects such as maths and science, which utilise such skills more.

If they do not have such experiences when they are younger, girls feel less confident, and it is just a small leap from that to assuming that they are not good at those subjects. That really affects how they progress at school. Assumptions and stereotypes about girls’ abilities and interests—the perception that certain subjects, just like certain toys, just “aren’t for you”—go on to shape the choices girls make at school. Those choices have significant implications.

By the time they get to university level, boys and girls are strongly segregated in some areas with, on the whole, boys dominating in the subjects that can lead to the most financially lucrative careers. In 2013, only 6,600 girls took A-level physics, compared with just over 25,000 boys. That is a massive difference—girls made up just over 20% of the cohort. Of the 13,000 students who took further maths at A-level, only 3,700 were girls. That shows a clear differentiation. Of university places accepted, only 13% of engineering places, 18% of technology places and 22% of mathematics and computer science places are taken by women. Fewer than 9% of engineers in the UK are women, compared with around 20% in Italy and 26% in Sweden. There is no intrinsic reason why we should not be able to make a significant difference to that in the UK.

On the other hand, women made up 89% of students studying nursing and 85% studying education—areas of work that are often poorer paid than those that follow from a science degree. That not only results in women being poorer than men—as the hon. Lady said, 22% of the gender pay gap can be explained by the industries and occupations in which women work—but it also costs our economy significant amounts. There are skills shortages across the science, technology, engineering and maths sector, but as long as girls continue to feel that that world is not for them, our businesses will continue to miss out on vital talent that they need for future development. Put simply, we cannot afford not to allow girls the opportunity to enjoy and pursue the whole range of subjects, starting right at the beginning with their learning through play.

The hon. Lady asked what the Government were doing. They are playing their part. Public pressure on companies helps a lot on this issue, and a number of the organisations she mentioned have been extremely effective. The Government support the Women’s Business Council, which has done excellent work to raise girls’ aspirations. Alongside the council, we are taking action in schools on career advice, apprenticeships, technical colleges, STEM careers, enterprise, child care, equal pay and flexible working, all of which will help girls to reach their full potential in the workplace. In response to the WBC’s recommendation, we are currently developing an online resource for parents of teenage girls that will help them to guide their daughters to make confident and informed career choices independent of gender stereotypes and representations. Hopefully, that will lead girls to make different decisions in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) held two round-table discussions towards the end of last year to look specifically at raising girls’ aspirations. Officials have met retailers, manufacturers and others to discuss the issues we are talking about today.

I was not aware that the Government had been meeting retailers and others. Can the Minister share some of their responses?

I can get back to the hon. Lady with more information on that. There has clearly been some progress on the issue—she cited some examples of the moves made by retailers in response to the pressure on them. Some of them are beginning to recognise that there are wider implications to gender-specific marketing. The issue is not just about selling twice as many bikes because pink and blue cannot be used interchangeably; there are broader implications for the economy as well.

There have been some really positive moves from retailers, some of which the hon. Lady talked about. For example, she mentioned Boots, but Debenhams and The Entertainer have also stopped gender-specific labelling of toys, and M&S has committed to making its own-brand toys gender neutral. I find it enormously encouraging that there is starting to be a recognition that things have gone too far and something must be done. I hope that those companies lead the way so that we see such changes emulated more widely.

I recognise that there are some arguments in favour of the gender marketing of toys. For example, science and engineering kits are aimed at girls by using pink and purple to attract them to play with them more, and there are also pink Lego sets, pink globes and so on. It is argued that such products sell well and show girls that science and other potential careers are for them. That might be true, but it raises the issue of whether, in the longer term, that just reinforces the notion that if it is not pink and pretty, it is not for girls. That concerns me. As someone who never wears pink, I feel that we should be able to broaden out. Girls should have wider aspirations, rather than just assuming that they have to play with it if it is pink.

It is often suggested that those of us who oppose gender-specific toys are somehow going against nature and attempting social engineering against children’s perfectly natural and hard-wired preferences, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am not trying to stop boys from playing football or girls from playing with dolls. Nature undoubtedly has a role in how children play and interact with toys. My three-year-old son is completely obsessed with cars, trains and diggers, and he always has been, but he also makes a mean cup of pretend tea and is very good at making pretend cakes. Nature has a role to play, but it is not the be-all and end-all.

The Minister is making an excellent point. Does she agree that the issue is not about saying that boys should be playing with cookery sets or that girls should or must be playing with engineering sets, but about letting them and their parents have the choice, free from external pressures?

I could not agree more. There will be boys who grow up to be fantastic chefs and designers, and there will be girls who will be professional footballers or engineers or scientists. The issue is about ensuring that children have the choice and are able to play with a wide range of toys to develop their skills across the board and decide what is best for them and where their interests and skills lie. That will be different for every child.

The issue is also about ensuring that parents are able to help their children have that choice without feeling completely bound by the marketing that suggests they are supposed to buy only certain types of toys for their child because of the child’s gender. We should free people to make choices based on the interests, skills and desires of the children, rather than on the associated marketing. Surely it makes sense that when children first start to explore the world and discover their interests and skills, they should be completely free to let their imaginations roam and to identify what they want to do with their lives.

I sense that most reasonable people would agree that it is wrong to limit our children’s horizons, particularly at such an early age; wrong to restrict their creative play and, as a result, their occupational opportunities; and wrong to shame them for wanting to explore a wide range of toys. Perhaps where people differ is on how important they think the issue is and how much impact it has. We could do with some rigorous, high-quality research to help guide parents, teachers, manufacturers, retailers and advertisers on the right and responsible way forward. I have looked, and there seems to be little, if any, research in that area. It would be good to see some research on what impact the issue has; that might persuade people to change how they retail or advertise toys and help parents shape the choices that they make on behalf of their children.

Toys are a hugely important part of our children’s learning and development. It is of course for children and their parents to choose the toys they play with, as we were just discussing. They should be able to make those choices freely from a full range of toys. How our children play helps to shape their aspirations for the future, and I want those aspirations to be based on their abilities and interests, not on stereotypes. I value the right of every single child to be treated as a unique individual and to be given the opportunity to explore their own interests and develop their own potential and talents, wherever they may lie. That is important not only for children now playing, but for the future of the economy.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.