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Gender Inclusive Marketing of Toys

Retailers Ditching the Gendered Agenda

May 21, 2015

 Roll back for a minute to 2013; Julia Gillard sits in office as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, as does Quentin Bryce as Australia’s first female Governor General. Scientists successfully clone human stem cells. At the same time catalogues, websites and aisles of toy stores are so filled with old-fashioned gender stereotypes that it makes them look like they’ve been produced for an episode of Mad Men.

After years of watching the rise and rise of the toy store gender divide, we had to take action.

How does society’s belief in equal rights translate to this world of toys?

Separating toys into ‘boys toys’ and ‘girls toys’ not only seemed nonsensical, but the more we looked into the issue the more we discovered that it could be downright damaging.

When retailers divide toys according to old-fashioned gender stereotypes, they are prescribing the interests and activities deemed appropriate ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’. This separation deprives girls of toys in a range of colours other than pink or purple, toys and games that encourage physical activity and they miss out on opportunities to foster the development of their spatial and analytical skills.

Instead, they’re encouraged towards more passive pursuits. Playing princesses is encouraged along with a love of anything presented in various shades of pink. Toys ‘for girls’ are focused primarily on beauty and domesticity. Even ‘science kits’ marketed towards girls are usually limited to exploring the ‘science’ of making lip gloss and perfume.

… we tell children on one hand they can ‘be whatever they want to be …

At the same time, boys are discouraged from seeking opportunities to explore nurturing dolls (sold in a section marked ‘girls’), playing house or practising their communication and co-operation skills. Boys are certainly not encouraged to explore the science behind make-up and smelling good. It’s made clear they should never play with or show interest in ‘pink things’.

We had to ask ourselves … How does society’s belief in equal rights translate to this world of toys? How can we tell children on one hand they can ‘be whatever they want to be’ while simultaneously allowing retailers to spend millions of advertising dollars instructing them to be the polar opposite?

That belief in equal rights wasn’t translating and we couldn’t sit back any longer.

So take action we did. We started a campaign calling on Australian toy retailers to please:

•         Remove gender categories from websites, marketing materials and stores and sort toys by function or theme
•         Demonstrate gender equity in marketing toys: let’s see examples of both girls and boys playing with all sorts of toys
•         Stop using pink and blue to represent ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ sections within marketing materials, stores and products; give children a rainbow of colours to choose from

Fast forward to 2015 and what has changed?

Well, in some areas, a massive amount; in others, not so much.

Let’s take a look at who’s still retailing gender, who’s made some changes and what gender-inclusive retailing of toys actually looks like; focusing on some of the retailers we’ve targeted during our campaigns.

We began our campaign by petitioning multinational toy giant Toys-R-Us who at the time segregated toys according to gender categories. We started with Toys-R-Us because overseas the company had made moves towards being more inclusive by removing gender categories online, in stores and by using imagery that challenged gender stereotypes and we wondered why these positive changes were not taking place here. We met with General Manager (for Australia) Andre Javes at the time to raise our concerns about the continuing use of gender categories in Australia to sell toys.

The categories of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ were removed from the home page as categories (in Australia at least) within weeks of the launch of our campaign. We also saw some great improvements in the imagery used in their print catalogues such as ‘Book 7 Toys and Learning’ which turned gender stereotypes on their heads by including images of girls using power tools and boys pushing prams. We got in touch to let Toys-R-Us know both these changes were a big improvement in our eyes.

The imagery used in catalogues is variable these days, with some of the latest catalogues featuring a ‘Fireman Deluxe Kit Set Costume’ (actually, it’s a fire fighter costume…) alongside a ‘Cowgirl Dress Up’ outfit in pink (pole-dancing anyone?) on the same page a boy advertises kitchen appliances. The ‘Let’s Pretend I am a Princess’ catalogue doesn’t indulge boys in playing dress ups and all the girls ‘pretending to be superheroes’ on the back page are wearing very short skirts – there is however a girl sporting a magnifying glass pretending to be a scientist pictured below. Type ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ into the search function of the website today to find out what Toys-R-Us deems appropriate for ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ to play with in 2015.

Myer produced a catalogue in September 2014 (online & print) called ‘It’s Time to Play’, separating toys into ‘boys’ (blue) and ‘girls’ (purple) categories. Their online store listed ‘Gifts for Kids’ by gender in the lead up to Christmas, a trend that was echoed in their Christmas gift guides where we saw separate ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ categories along with imagery of princesses and action heroes once again.

Today the ‘Kids & Toys’ section on Myer’s website lists toys by function or purpose and does not include gender as a category consumers can use to refine their search. Myer’s physical stores could do with some reorganisation. Toys in-store are typically grouped according to gender stereotype (or with rather large pink sections separate from ‘everything else’), sometimes with specific ‘girls’ signs. We also watch with anticipation to see whether Myer’s next print catalogue will be free of gender categories and stereotypes.

Target once offered shoppers the option to ‘shop by gender’ for toys, selling different toys to ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ under these categories. In July 2014 Target released a huge sale catalogue entitled ‘The Greatest Toy Sale on Earth’. The index divided toys by gender, presenting 8 pages of toys under the colour-coded blue label ‘boys’, 9 pages colour-coded pink for ‘girls’ and 5 pages for ‘boys and girls’…

And today? Target no longer divides toys into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ categories, having removed the ‘shop by gender’ option from their ‘Toys’ page. They now simply list items under categories according to their function or purpose such as ‘construction toys’, ‘action figures’, ‘dolls and accessories’ and so on – unless of course you’re shopping for books. Target still offers ‘shop by gender’ here, sorting books into ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ categories. Target also still uses ‘Shop by Gender’ to divide toys in their ‘Sale’ pages. Perhaps this is just a code monkey’s mistake?

When we launched our campaign, Big W used gender categories of ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘both’ as filters, displaying different toys ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’. Consumers could also ‘Shop Boys Toys’ or ‘Shop Girls Toys’. Back in January they advertised Action Figures with the slogan ‘Occupy Your Boys Imagination’, also using colour-coded backgrounds like pink behind the word ‘Dolls’ and blue behind ‘Trucks’ as proxies for ‘girls’ and ‘boys’.

Big W has since removed gender categories and filters in favour of sorting toys according to function, however they still use signs separating ‘Boys toys’ and ‘Girls toys’ in their physical stores. So what’s with the in-store signs Big W?

Australian Geographic’s online store uses filters to divide toys using gender stereotypes too. ‘Gender’ appears as a menu category if you type ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ in as a search term. This brings up search suggestions like ‘girls toys’, ‘girls gift ideas’ and ‘boys guns’, ‘boys books’, ‘boys gifts’ with different merchandise being displayed for each gender. We’ve been in touch with Australian Geographic, who just this week say they will trial the removal of this ‘gender filter’. Why not leave feedback congratulating them on this move (yet to be implemented at the time this article was published) here.

This brings us to Kmart, who were one of the only (major) retailers not using gender as a home page category to separate toys online. The only place Kmart used gender as a category for toys was in the ‘gifts’ section of their website and they have since removed the categories of ‘Gifts for Girls’ and ‘Gifts for Boys’, replacing them with ‘Gifts for Kids’. Sadly though if you type in ‘boys toys’ or ‘girls toys’ this retailer too presents separate ranges of toys, albeit remarkably similar. Why not ditch it, Kmart?

It’s great to see some of our major retailers responding to our campaigns by removing gender categories and gender stereotypes as a mechanism for marketing toys, in favour of a more inclusive style of marketing.

If children see a toy being marketed without the use of gender stereotypes, in a rainbow of colours, with images of children of different genders, they are more likely to feel that it’s okay to explore their interest in that toy, or get involved in activities that involve playing it.

A new study finding boys show more gender-typical preferences for toys than girls, also showing an aversion to all things pink supports this theory. The researchers suggested this may be due to stronger social pressure faced by boys to conform to gender-typical behaviour.

One major Australian retailer we spoke with about gendered marketing reported a huge increase in the sale of toy kitchens, after the packaging was made less pink with more ‘gender inclusive’ images of boys and girls playing with the item. Perhaps the issue then becomes consumers not ‘needing’ to buy multiples of things to get around handing down a pink kitchen from a daughter to a son who wants nothing to do with its pinkness …

If you think that the issue of gendered, colour-coded marketing is limited to just toys, you are seriously mistaken.

Ponder for a moment the following selection of consumables ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ – the selection starting of course from birth with ‘touchy feely’ books, and toothbrushes, vitamins, drawing books, shampoo, chocolate – the list goes on and on and on …

That's not my baby (Girl)
That's not my baby (boy)




Spinbrush - girls and boys




Multivitamins for girls
Multivitamins for boys


Unfortunately, toys are just the tip of the gender stereotyped ice-berg when it comes to marketing to children.

So what does gender-inclusive marketing look like?

Gender stereotypes provide a platform for bullying, leaving many children (and adults) feeling isolated

Toys are organised by function or theme, for example skipping ropes and kites would be found in ‘outdoor play’, a Barbie doll can be found in ‘dolls and figurines’ along with the ‘The Hulk’ (and Ken), a truck can be found in ‘vehicles’, Lego in ‘building and construction’ and so on … easy isn’t it?

Catalogues would feature more gender inclusive images of children playing together with a range of toys produced in a rainbow of colours. That’s a rainbow, not beige. There may be boys pushing prams and wearing tiaras; there may be girls wielding power tools whilst dressed as Batman (no mini-skirt necessary); everyone flipping pancakes in toy kitchens …

Scary idea to some. ‘What if my kid turns into a ‘fairy’ (read: gay or lesbian)? Seriously? We’re talking about dress-ups. Children are no more likely to become fairies by donning wings than they are to become doctors by putting on a white coat. Imaginations will flourish as they enjoy the freedom of running around the garden waving their wings and wands about making magic. Incidentally, if they do happen to become ‘fairies’ later in life, outside of their imagination and probably unrelated to childhood dress-ups, surely as parents we love them, support them and encourage them all the while.

Gender stereotypes limit imaginations and limit play opportunities. They limit the ways we think about ourselves and other people. And gender stereotypes can limit the cognitive skills and abilities we encourage children to develop as they grow if we let them.

Gender stereotypes provide a platform for bullying, leaving many children (and adults) feeling isolated when they don’t ‘tow the line’.

That’s not what I want for any child. I’m glad things are changing. How about you?

Do you have a story to share about an experience with toys and gender stereotypes? Want to share a picture you’ve snapped of an item manufactured primarily in pink and blue? Message us on Facebook and we’ll share it.

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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