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Marketing the gender gap

December 11, 2013

Thea Hughes spoke recently with sociologist Dr Elizabeth Sweet about her perspectives on the issues surrounding gendered labelling of toys.

Dr Sweet’s research has focused on examining gender, children’s toys and inequality over the 20th century. She has written for the New York Times and her research has been featured in many other international press outlets.

Dr Sweet recently received her PHD in Sociology from the University of California, and will begin a postdoctoral scholar position with the UC Davis Advance Program in January of 2014.

there were quite a few ads that actively challenged gender stereotypes in 1975. Boys were shown playing with domestic toys like toy kitchens …
Elizabeth, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me today.

Our recent campaign targeting Toys R US has generated lots of discussion about the issue of gendered marketing of toys to children and the negative impacts this practice has. What are your thoughts on  campaigning by organisations such as ours?

I think campaigns such as yours are vitally important.  All too often, the onus is put on parents to seek out alternative toy options in a marketplace flooded with gender-based toys. But the fact is that the pervasive gender-based marketing we see in toys today makes such options exceedingly rare and situates all toys – even those which are ostensibly gender-neutral- in a landscape of pink and blue aisles. The highly gender-coded toys we see today are a result of the marketing strategies of toy designers and retailers. In my research, I find no evidence that the shift towards increasingly gendered toys at the end of the 20th century was driven by the preferences of consumers. Nevertheless, gender-marketing strategies have thus far been economically successful for the toy industry. I believe that the toy industry will continue to exploit gender beliefs to sell toys as long as it’s profitable for them, regardless of the consequences for children. Thus I see campaigns such as Play Unlimited which educate the public about gendered toys and which pressure retailers to stop relying on gender stereotypes to sell toys as a key mechanism for creating change.

Can you tell me a bit about what your research tells us about the practice of gendered marketing of toys? One of the comments we often hear during our discussions about gendered marketing is that “things have always been this way”, what does your research suggest about this idea?

One of the clearest take-away messages from my research on gender and historical toys is that the gendering of toys is not inevitable, nor has it been historically consistent. Instead, gender-based toy marketing reflects and reinforces the particular beliefs about gender that are evident in any given era. There has been a good deal of variability in the extent and manner to which toys have been marketed by gender over time. In my analysis of U.S. retailer Sears catalogue toy advertisements over the 20th century, I found surprisingly few instances of toys being explicitly advertised according to gender in the earliest decades of the century. The overwhelming majority of toys ads in the 1905 Sears catalogue bore no references, either overt or implicit to gender. By the quarter and mid-century, toys were much more likely to be marketed according to gender. In 1925 and 1945, roughly half of toys in the Sears catalogue were gendered and the ideas about gender embedded into toy ads were quite traditional. But by 1975, there was a notable shift in toy advertisements. First, there was an increase in gender-neutral toy advertisements – 68% of toy ads in this year bore no gender cues whatsoever and less than 2% of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls. More importantly, there were quite a few ads that actively challenged gender stereotypes in 1975. Boys were shown playing with domestic toys like toy kitchens and girls were shown building and role-playing occupations like doctor or airplane captain. But this shift was short-lived, as by the close of the century, toy ads had reverted to a more gendered presentation. The ads in the 1990s were much more likely to emphasize new fantasy-based gender roles like the pink princess or the action hero. These fantasy roles ultimately perpetuated the same core gender stereotypes found in earlier toys, but they did so cloaked in new fantasy packaging. In essence, the ‘little homemaker’ of the 1950s morphed into the ‘little princess’ we see today.

The gendering we see in today’s toy aisles is far more pervasive than anything observed over the 20th century. Even during the years when I saw the greatest evidence of gender-marketing, half of toys were advertised in a gender-neutral manner. When you compare that to what we see today, when nearly all toys are designed according to gender and are sold in gender-coded aisles or online pages, it is a stark difference. So it is simply not the case that toys have always been this way. What we see today looks more extreme than at any time in modern history, which is paradoxical given that we are also closer than we’ve ever been to gender equality.

How much is gendered marketing of toys is about companies wanting to sell multiples of things?

This is certainly a big piece of the puzzle. The toy industry began to rely more heavily on market segmentation and market research in the 1980s and this is clearly reflected in the toys of this era. And from an economic standpoint, it makes sense. Why sell a family one version of a toy when you could sell two or more? However, the particular ways in which the industry segmented the market are telling. If you think about it, there are many possible ways target markets could have been defined, but gender and age became the focal distinctions. This tells us a lot not just about the gender-stereotyped assumptions which guide the toy industry, but also about the central – and I would argue increasing -importance of gender categorisation and stereotyping in society. I find evidence in U.S. public opinion polls from the 1980s and 1990s of a growing cultural belief in gender difference that coincides with the increasing reliance on gender categorisation in toys. I think these two things are deeply interconnected: gendered toys play upon the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally different and they reinforce this idea by prescribing different interests, skills, and proclivities to boys and girls.

What have been your observations over time about how much the practice of gendered marketing is a reflection of society’s social structure?

I was inspired to research this topic because I was puzzled by the paradox that toys have become increasingly gendered over the past 30 years even as gender inequality in the adult world has diminished. Clearly the gender polarisation in toys we see today does not reflect the substantial progress toward gender quality in occupations, in politics, and in the home and family. So in addition to collecting data on toys, I studied historical demographic measures of gender inequality in the U.S. to try to ascertain whether there was any patterning between changes in the social structure and what we see in toys. What I found is that the relationship between societal gender inequality and toys is complex. Toys seemed to be the least gendered at the turn of the 20th century even though gender inequality in the adult world was pervasive at that time. However  gender distinctions among young children were not of central importance during this period and  marketing – especially of toys, which were a luxury good for many -was not a primary focus. In this context, toy makers and retailers had little impetus to use gender-based marketing to sell toys.

By the quarter and mid-century, the marketing of toys to children increased as did gender distinctions in toys.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, the social structure in the U.S. changed in dramatic ways and by the 1970s, in the midst of the widespread feminist movement, the gender-definition of adult roles had begun to blur. This was evident in the increasingly gender-neutral and sometimes counter-stereotypical toy ads of 1975.  Gendered toys showed resurgence by 1995 and interestingly, this reversion coincides with a stalling of progress towards structural gender inequality on nearly all measures during the 1990s. Many gender scholars have argued that this stalled progress reflects the persistent effects of cultural stereotypes and beliefs about gender even as the idea that men and women should have equal opportunity has flourished.

In essence, the “different and inferior” narratives that supported open discrimination against women in earlier eras have been replaced with the mantra of “different and equal”. But in truth, the very notions of difference continue to fuel numerous implicit processes that sustain gender inequality and constrain opportunities.

You have suggested in relation to toy production and marketing that “we need to demand that corporations be held accountable to make and market products in a responsible manner”, do you think the current practice of gendered marketing is irresponsible? Why?

I do think gendered marketing towards children is irresponsible. The gender stereotypes used to sell toys today are blatant and reductive, and while we need much more research to understand the precise effects this marketing has on children, the research we do have on the effects of gender stereotypes in toys and media suggests that the effects may be profound. Toy companies and retailers are motivated by profit, but that profit should not be made at the expense of children’s well-being.

What do you observe as being the negative effects on children of gendered marketing?

Gender marketing amplifies the idea of gender difference by compressing children’s diverse interests and preferences into two narrow, stereotype-laden boxes. For example, research has shown that toys for girls centre almost exclusively on beauty, domesticity, and nurturing while toys for boys are about aggression, action, and excitement.

The fact is that there is far greater diversity among boys and among girls than there are differences between them, but gender marketing hones in on small average differences and amplifies them.  This limits children in obvious ways. A girl who might enjoy building or a boy who would enjoy nurturing play may be steered away from these interests simply because they are not represented in the toys available to them.

One of the recent trends that concerns me is the increase in toys like Lego Friends and GoldieBlox which are gender-marketed but which claim to counter gender stereotypes.
In addition, the increasingly gendered offerings heighten the rewards of conforming to gender stereotypes and amplify the costs of not doing so. Children who do defy the dictates of gender-marketing often experience painful social sanctions from their peers or from adults. There are far too many stories of children being bullied or taunted for selecting toys that are perceived as gender non-conforming.

Do you see a link between the toys a child is encouraged to access, their sense of identity and the way they are able to conceive of themselves as they grow into adults?
Does this practice cause harm to children?

Absolutely. We know, based upon a wealth of sociological and psychological research, that gender stereotypes have profound effects on the ways in which we see ourselves and others and gender stereotypes certainly define the types of toys marketed to boys and girls. Stereotypes have been found to influence perceptions of task competence, educational and career aspirations, and educational and occupational opportunities. Gender stereotypes are heavily implicated in the persistent gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math fields, for example. It’s no coincidence that toys which emphasise building and science are overwhelmingly marketed to boys, and the few building and science toys for girls rely on pink packaging and relational themes to appeal to girls. Such toys are designed around the idea that boys and girls have fundamentally different skills and interests, and implicit in this is the idea that girls are less competent than boys at building so they need to be enticed into it. The same is true of nurturing toys for boys. Messages like this in toys reinforce larger cultural beliefs about gender and surely influence children as they develop and form their own identities.

What can we as parents and consumers do about this trend in marketing?

So often, I hear people offer the “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” solution to parents who are troubled by gender-marketed toys. Unfortunately, there are few affordable toy options that aren’t gender-marketed or heavily infused with stereotypes so this solution is wanting. For this reason, as parents I believe we need to make advocating for more choices and demanding change from retailers and the toy industry a primary focus.

However, parents can and should seek out toys which don’t pander to gender stereotypes. As a mother, I have navigated the minefields of the pink and blue aisles to offer my daughter toys which foster a variety of imaginative play options, from the constructive to the relational. And I’ve made every effort to seek out toys that are marketed broadly to children whenever possible. I’ve also been talking to my daughter since she was an infant about the messages that are contained in the toys, products, and marketing that surrounds her. Now, at age 11, she has become quite the critical consumer – she often points out sexist and problematic messages in the media and products she encounters.

What direction do you see toy marketing taking in the future?

That’s a really good question. Gender-marketing has clearly reached such an extreme that it’s fostering a great deal of discussion and calls for change. While there seems to be little movement on behalf of retailers to address gender-marketing here in the U.S., I’ve been heartened by the successes of campaigns like yours abroad. This clearly demonstrates that parents and advocates can have an impact on marketing strategies if we use our collective voices. However, it won’t be easy. Even when retailers agree to stop explicitly organizing toys according to gender, the toys themselves are often highly gender-coded and send clear messages about who they are designed for. One of the recent trends that concerns me is the increase in toys like Lego Friends and GoldieBlox which are gender-marketed but which claim to counter gender stereotypes. Such options are often touted as a shift towards gender-neutrality, but this is misleading. While they do broaden the offerings in segregated toy aisles, they are still designed according to stereotypes and they do nothing to challenge the overall gender segregation of toys. I think deeper change will require big toy makers like Hasbro and Mattel to think outside of the gender box entirely, and I haven’t seen much evidence of their willingness to do so. However, the growing demand for truly non-gendered toys and the competition from small, independent companies who are willing to offer them may help to spur them on. And if retailers decide to stop segregating by gender, this may also pressure toy makers to broaden their offerings.

Instead of segregated aisles filled with stereotyped, color-coded toys, we would see a broad range of toy types with many different themes and in many different colours (including pink) marketed broadly to children.

If you had a magic wand, Elizabeth, what would you change about the way toys are marketed?

If I had a magic wand, I would use it to completely decouple the link between toys and gender in marketing. Instead of segregated aisles filled with stereotyped, color-coded toys, we would see a broad range of toy types with many different themes and in many different colours (including pink) marketed broadly to children. People often think that advocating for non-gendered toys means doing away with pink princesses and active superheroes entirely, but that’s not what I’m suggesting.

What I am advocating is for pink to become just one hue in a broader palette, and for princesses and superheroes to become choices amid a much broader array of roles equally accessible to both boys and girls. I’d like to see more science kits like those I played with in the ’70s and ’80s which show boys and girls together on the packaging. I’d like to see ads which show both boys and girls engaged in nurturing play and building play.

Were this the case, I believe that kids would be much freer to pursue what actually interests them. We were much closer to this vision in my own childhood than we are today and I think that’s sad. Our kids should have more possibilities open to them, not fewer. I can only hope that, with continued effort, we can someday get there.


Elizabeth Sweet

Find out more about Dr Elizabeth Sweet on her website http://elizabethvsweet.com/
You can also follow her on Twitter @ElizabethVSweet

Post By Thea Hughes (15 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 found Play Unlimited. As a mother, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.



  1. Wow I love the clarity of vision in this article. I think independent toy makers such as myself (Build & Imagine) have the freedom and guts to push the industry in the right direction. I too dream of a day when there is a broad spectrum of choices for children, and they can choose anything that interests them without fear of judgement. By freeing kids from the gender binary choices, we will empower them to develop their unique identities and explore a variety of skills.

    I set out to create a toy company, like GoldieBlox, that gets girls building, but somewhere along the way I decided to invite boys to play too. I feel that doing anything but that is signaling that we think all girls or all boys are a homogenous group with like interests. And that is not something I can stand behind.

    Taking things to the next level not only means introducing new play patterns into the historical gender binary buckets. It means dumping those buckets on the floor, letting them mix and mingle in a fluid way, and then setting children free to sail among the choices.

    I will try to make decisions along the way to encourage that.

    All the best,
    Laurie Peterson
    Founder & CEO
    Build & Imagine

  2. […] The backlash in some of the conservative press, has unsurprisingly banged this story under the headline “WAR ON BARBIE“. If you’ve read some of my previous posts on children’s toys, you’ll know that I am a fan of Barbie. Or more specifically, I have difficulty accepting campaigns against stereotypically “feminine” toys, like the time everyone got really pissed off about the femmed-up Merida doll. But aside from my critique that a lot of the children’s toy debate becomes laced with femmephobia, we still need to make sure we don’t miss the fundamental point – that children’s toys are often gendered along the binary male/female, and this is not a good thing.  […]

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