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Dolls, Trucks and the Workplace Gender Divide

November 27, 2013

Does dressing your daughter as a princess or restricting your son’s play to trucks and superheroes affect their careers choices later in life?

Can something so deceptively simple have such a profound influence?

Associate Professor Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender, claims it to be so.

Recently I attended the Melbourne Business School’s Women in Business symposium where Fine presented a session entitled ‘Dolls, Trucks and the Workplace Gender Divide’.

During her presentation Fine made an excellent case for rethinking the popular “hard-wired account of sex differences”, stating this approach is outdated and “inconsistent with contemporary understanding of gender, brain development and evolutionary science.”

Children do not escape the message made plain by girls being relentlessly smothered in pink and the princess concept and boys being framed as rough-and-tumble superheroes …
Fine, an academic psychologist, questioned the arguably ambiguous findings and flawed methodologies employed by neuroscience researchers, upon which the ‘science’ of sex differences rests.

The arguments she presented were more than compelling as were the insights into why much of the previous research was skewed in its design (however unintentionally), and out of step with contemporary knowledge.

For example, we now understand that our concept of gender develops dynamically rather than being fixed, that the scientific accounts of evolution have changed and that our brain is far more ‘plastic’ than previously thought; enabling us to cope with ever-changing environments, experiences, cultural shifts.

Fine argued that the ‘science’ of sex differences has been ‘naturalised’ and the concept that males and females are ‘hard-wired’ to be different is part of the culture in which our brains develop. It is these powerful social attitudes that shape our ideas about gender.

When exploring gender identity in relation to children, Fine pointed out that children are given “huge amounts of information about their gender” which is emphasised every day from the moment they are born and announced as being either a boy or a girl.

Fine said that children are akin to “gender detectives”; acutely aware of their own gender by the age of 2 or 3.

She asserted that “the relentless gendering of everything around the child – from clothes, shoes, bedding, lunch boxes, even gift wrap as well as the wider world around” makes gender an impossible concept for children to ignore.

Children are also influenced by media messages and develop a sharp awareness of the social expectations associated with gender in relation to products being marketed to them.

Fine mentioned Jeong Mee Yoon’s research project entitled ‘The Pink and Blue Project’, which

“explores the trends in cultural preferences and the differences in the tastes of children (and their parents) from diverse cultures, ethnic groups as well as gender socialization and identity”, which colourfully illustrates the impact of socialisation and marketing on the colour (and toy) preferences of boys and girls.

She gave some great examples of the way marketeers use this ‘naturalised concept of sex differences’ to market products along gender lines. Huggies nappies advertise quite plainly that “boys and girls are different”, presenting stereotypical imagery of a girl dressed as a pink fairy, feeds a baby, baking, reads about princesses, sleeps in a pink bed with her cuddly purple unicorn; while the boy dresses up as a pirate, plays with trucks, makes mud pies, reads about trucks, sleeps under a blue sheet with his pet dinosaur.

Children do not escape the message made plain by girls being relentlessly smothered in pink and the princess concept and boys being framed as rough-and-tumble, superheroes, ready to save the nearest damsel in distress. They take this ‘knowledge’ about gender with them as they grow and develop, imaging their future selves… all wivthin the acceptable, ‘as advertised’ parameters of course.

Given children grow up experiencing very rigid rules around the development of their identity when it comes to gender, it is hardly surprising to imagine there may be a link between the skills and interests children develop, and perhaps more critically those skills and interests they don’t, and the choices they make later in life when it comes to pursuing a career.

Sex differences as a naturalised concept carries over into the workplace too.

This may go a long way toward explaining why there are fewer women CEOs, miners, engineers and male nurses, teachers, carers … the list goes on. In fact, I don’t even have to point out what is traditionally considered to be a male or female-dominated career or workplace. We are all so acutely aware of these gender lines that; you could no doubt list them like an expert yourself. That fact alone illustrates the case in point.

So, how do we escape the implications of the ‘naturalised’ concept of sex differences and its far-reaching, pervasive impact on our lives from the moment we come into the world?

How do we address this way of thinking which has such a narrowing impact on the choices our children feel free to make about simple things such as liking a colour, or showing interest in a doll, or a truck?

As Professor Fine says so pointedly in the closing chapter of her book Delusions of Gender, “Our minds, society and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.”

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, why we invest so much in gender stereotypes.

Why we allow this message to be reinforced to our children by manufacturers, by society at large?

What would life look like without the rigid restrictions that flow from that first label, moments after birth: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl”?

Post By Thea Hughes (19 Posts)

Thea spent more than a decade working in a heavily male-dominated industry, inspiring her to begin her formal studies in gender at Sydney University and to found Play Unlimited. As a parent, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.


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