Challenging the Root of Gender Norms

December 10, 2015Target, one of the largest retailers in the US, announced in August that it will be working to reduce the extent to which their products for children are gendered. This move includes removing the signs that indicate that certain sections of toys and beddings are for “boys” or “girls” as well as removing the gendered color-coding of pink and blue to indicate who certain products are for.
Target says this move was prompted by customer feedback. According to their press release, “as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.” The impetus, they say, is to ensure that they “never want guests or their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented.”
And it’s the right thing to do.
The obvious reason why it is the right thing to do is that the existing system artificially limits children’s play options. The research shows that gender and color labeling toys limits what children perceive as being options for them (here and here). Boys are deterred from playing with toys that are clearly labeled as being for girls and girls are deterred from playing with toys that are clearly labeled for boys even if they are toys that they would otherwise play with.
But it’s also the right thing to do because this classification of toys as being for girls or for boys has effects later in life. This division of play is an early-life version of the gender segregation of work that we see later in life. Through playing with toys children can explore and learn to enjoy a range of experiences that eventually lead them to any number of future job fields.
Or they can instead learn through their gender assigned toys that caregiving is for girls and engineering is for boys. When the aisle labeled “for girls” is full of dolls and miniature kitchen sets while the aisle labeled “for boys” is full of building blocks and science kits, the message could not be clearer.
Those lessons have a real impact on the outcomes for individuals and workplaces. Gender segregation in our workplaces is still very real. In a previous MARC blog post, Dean Johnson, past President and CEO of Sodexo Canada, argued that one of the roots of the problem of segregation in workplaces is “our own assumptions about who should be doing which jobs.”
If we stop and ask ourselves where those assumptions come from, it would be hard to argue that our childhoods and the toys we were presented as being “for us” as boys or girls played no role.
Gender-segregating toys not only frustrates and limits children when they are children, it is one more way in which we set the stage for a frustrating and limiting adulthood of gender segregation.
Target is doing the right thing in taking steps to challenge that norm.

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The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.