How is gender instilled in kids from a young age?

From the moment the balloons are released at a gender reveal party, children are subjected to gender stereotypes – regardless of whether it’s intentional. It all starts even before they are born.

From cards to toys, and from books to bottles of bubble bath, there’s still so often a clear target gender demographic when it comes to kid’s products. The design, the colour choices, the language, and even the educational messaging are all often tailored for one or the other: girls versus boys. So what are we dealing with here, and what kind of impact does this have on our children?

Let’s focus on fashion first. Of course, there are plenty of options for those not wishing to wrangle their offspring into the traditional pink or blue onesies, and judgement is less likely nowadays if you wish to dress your little boy in flowers. However, when it comes to clothing – something that’s so intrinsically linked with our identities and self-expression  – there’s still a huge divide between what’s on offer, and how it’s presented to us.

Upon entering a children’s clothing department in a high-street shop, you’ll likely be met with separate girl’s and boy’s sections. Girls’ options, usually, are festooned with pink, unicorns, or glitter, while boys might expect to find blues, tractors, sharks and even camouflage. It’s often up to the customer to make a conscious decision to go against the marketing and, for example, buy the dinosaur t-shirt for their niece, or a Frozen fancy dress outfit for their Disney-loving son.

As we’ve said, there has been progress when it comes to companies offering more gender-neutral options or mixing up product displays, and more acceptance when kids wear whatever they want; but this problem goes further than just colour palettes and patterns.

Earlier this year, Primark was lambasted for having sexist children’s clothing on sale in its stores. A BBC article published at the time said:

“Novelist Kate Long shared images on social media of tops in a Chester store on Sunday which urged girls to ‘be kind’, ‘keep on smiling’ and to be ‘always perfect’. In contrast, items in the boys’ range told them ‘you are limitless’ and that they could ‘make the rules’. Brands like Boden have also come under fire for choosing slogans such as ‘cool to be kind’ on girls’ clothing, whereas boys’ items featured the words ‘genius’ or ‘warrior knees’.”

While the clothes in question may well have been in a range of colours (Primark responded by referencing their ‘gender-busting ranges’), it’s the messaging coming from these slogans that sets us back decades in terms of progress and equality.

The contrast between the sentiments shared here is shocking. The language for girls is limiting and focused on surface qualities, their value being determined by their looks and their duties towards others; whereas for boys it’s more encouraging, empowering, and even borderline aggressive. 

Sadly, this kind of messaging on products is not uncommon, and it sticks with our kids. According to a survey by the Children’s Society, “44% of girls said being good-looking was most important” and “1 in 8 of the young people we interviewed said that ‘being tough’ is important in boys.” 

The long-term impact is clear. The Children’s Society concludes: “These perceived gender norms impact on young people’s well-being. Children who chose ‘being tough’ as the most important trait for boys, or ‘having good clothes’ as the most important trait for girls, are shown to have the lowest well-being across the group.”

While girls are taught their values lie in their looks and their positivity, boys are taught that they have to be strong, brave and confident. It’s not hard to see how these early ideas can escalate into more serious issues (for example, the damaging concept that ‘boys don’t cry’). Children are taught about society’s archaic gender expectations from a young age, through the clothes they wear and the cards they receive, and it’s clear there are lasting consequences when it comes to their personalities and therefore their pathways in life. 

It’s not just about well-being. In terms of fulfilling their potential and their dreams, the cliches and conventions imposed upon our children – however innocently – might set girls and women back decades when it comes to progressing in the world of work.

Toys are an important way for children to explore their identities and learn about the world around them – and how they fit into it. Play is educational, and so what we encourage or enable them to play with can have a significant impact on their development and understanding of what’s expected of them.

This experiment by BBC Stories explores the concept of gender bias and children’s toys.

In this film, a team switches the clothes of little boys and girls, playing on bias to trick the adults in the experiment into thinking they are playing with a child of the opposite gender. Presented with a range of toys, the adults play with the children, and we wait to see whether they submit to gender stereotypes.

The results are astounding, with the vast majority of adults opting for dolls and soft toys for little girls and robots or puzzles for little boys.

One participant said, after playing with ‘Sophie’ (who was, in fact, ‘Edward’): “I think she liked that pink dolly the best”. Later, upon the revelation that Sophie was a little boy, they added “I maybe thought, this is a little girl so I have to give her little girl things.”

The experiment goes on to state that “men hugely dominate careers prizing maths, spatial awareness and physical confidence,” and questions whether this is, in fact, nurture rather than nature. With little boys’ toys being traditionally geared towards their tactile development, there’s evidence to suggest that our gender bias during playtime could perpetuate further inequalities later in life.

This experiment also emphasises our point earlier about gender and clothing. Despite openness to gender neutrality and kids wearing whatever they want, we’re still struggling to shake off the learned behaviours and archaic expectations of what little boys and little girls look like. 

A lot of the progress we need to make, as always, starts with our own actions and working on our own preconceptions. It’s time to encourage curiosity and diversity when choosing toys for children; to challenge our own often unconscious biases, and tackle gender inequalities and stereotypes from a very early age. 

While many little girls will likely still want to play with their dolls, and little boys with their trucks, the most important thing is to give them a wide range of options, and to allow them to be guided by their own curiosity and joyfulness. Whatsmore, we must be mindful of the messages we’re sending with the clothes we dress them in.

We’ll leave you with this poem and film by Hollie McNish and Jake Dypka, which explores how gender stereotyping and preconceptions have a ripple effect on our entire lives. She makes this final statement, which sums it all up perfectly:

“Blue is told: this makes a man

Pink is told: this makes a girl

Babies born in naked flesh

Welcome to the World.”

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