Tesco has become the second major retailer to be criticised in recent months for gendering the sale of its children’s toys.

Boots previously displayed science toys for boys and ‘domestic games’ or Tea Sets for girls. Clearly boys or men do not drink tea and girls cannot be expected to understand the science behind every day things? It is not only sexist, it is socially damaging

Segregating toys by gender, and denying children the chance to develop their interests, damages formative education and perpetuates gendered constructs into later learning. The World Bank’s 2012 report on Gender Equality and Development argues that it is “stereotypes within the education system, norms governing gender roles in the household that constrain a woman’s choice of occupation.” Indeed, early learning impacts educational and academic choices and leads to limited talent pools for ‘atypical’ occupations.

Children’s author Megan Peel writing in the Guardian highlights that “Boots is a science-based company that employs many female pharmacists, opticians and chemists and should know better than to discriminate in this way.” Indeed Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) suffers from low representation of women in their sector and therefore compete for the few candidates in order to attract a diverse workforce. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found only one in seven engineers is female and less than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science go to women, even though female graduates hold 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. Industry news site The Engineer suggests that women constitute just 8.7% of professional engineers in the UK – much lower than China where more than a third of engineers are women. So Tesco’s defending of their chemistry sets as ‘for boys’ and toy cookers as being ‘for girls’ is aggravating existing gender imbalances; which are clearly socially constructed.

What also perplexes me – why is it always down to the women to challenge unconscious bias? I watched the BBC Breakfast covering this story and Suzanna Reid proudly asserted that ‘there is nothing wrong with a boy playing with dolls’ but she was met by a stifled sneer from Bill Turnbull who quickly deflected to a spokesperson from @LetToysBeToys. Even the sample of ‘everydaypeople’ spoken to on the street reflected a very gendered approach – one man said that he didn’t expect a boy to play with Barbie while a young mother (her baby boy in tow) said ‘if he wants a doll, he’ll have a doll!’ Why do men feel they have to police gender?

This also has further implications for the LGBT communities. Men feel they are expected to reinforce the differences between them and women, with gay and bisexual men seeming to blur these boundaries; whether through alternative choice of toys, clothing or employment.

The Gay British Crime Survey 2008 conducted by Stonewall highlights that the majority of victims of homophobic hate crime are young gay men, administered by males under the age of 25. For me gendering toys is homophobic and misogynistic, the two often linked. Every gay friend of mine at university had a My Little Pony. In fact when I had my tonsils out as a child I was rewarded with a toy of my choice – and what did I choose? Yes, a My Little Pony. Despite some initial reservations, my parents did not deny their child his wish and I feel that their support for my ‘different’ behaviour has helped my creativity and ability to seek out what I really want in life, rather than what I feel is expected or demanded of me.

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Institutional gendering of toys perpetuates negative and limiting constructions of gender. They also reinforce the binary of male or female, thus excluding those along the gender spectrum leading to the disproportionately high levels of isolation, depression and suicide amongst the transgender community. The National Centre for Transgender Equality (NCTE) estimates that between 30-50% of the transgender community has attempted suicide at least once. Although this is not immediately correlated with gender construction alone, it does highlight one barrier to be overcome by those transitioning between one gender and the other, especially when considering the young.

The EverydaySexism.com site lists reams and reams of cases where prejudice against the gender spectrum is enacted on a daily, and often unchallenged, basis. Much of the examples are ignored or disregarded as too widespread, low-level or unchangeable. But if we all do not challenge these consistent inequalities and unfairness then they will not change. It is not ‘petty’ to demand equal pay (as it was deemed until 1975), women and men are not simply ‘acting up’ if they do not want to be spoken about as sexual objects and it is not acceptable as a mother or father to deny your daughter a science kit or your son a tea set; if they prefer an Action Man or Barbie then at least you have a child who knows and speaks their mind – isn’t that what a self-fulfilled adult is all about?

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About the author: Peter Richards
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Opinions expressed in this article may not reflect those of THEGAYUK, its management or editorial teams. If you'd like to comment or write a comment, opinion or blog piece, please click here.