Still? Really? Are you even kidding me? Please excuse me while I go find a wall upon which to bang my head in dismay, disgust, and demoralized agony . . .
(An open letter to Tesco, inspired by, and in support of, this article by Let Toys Be Toys: “Since when were science toys just for boys?” (see below) Update 9.30pm BST. Since this letter is getting quite a lot of traffic I just want to be clear that I’m also with everyone who thinks it’s appalling that the kitchen is tagged for girls. My strongest voice is as a scientist, but this is really about dropping the boy/girl categories altogether.)
I do hope you’ll excuse the impertinence of my writing to you. I have, alas, frivolously wasted time in gaining a PhD in theoretical physics, investigating the mysteries of the universe, and co-founding a biomedical charity to address the suffering caused by the diseases of aging. Regretfully, I have spent woefully little time in the kitchen. If only you had been there, in my early days, to guide me in my life choices: then, perhaps, things would have been very different.
Thank heavens you have such an effective comeback to those who complain about your labelling of toys along gender lines: “Toy signage is currently based on research and how our customers tell us they like to shop in our stores”.
I do wonder what that research shows. Perhaps you ask a group of customers about every toy, to assign gender-appropriateness to it. Surely you care more than that, though? Surely, you see it as your own role to allocate each of your toys to boys or girls? I bet your research simply asks “Do you want toys grouped by gender?” so you can selflessly keep the important responsibility of ensuring girls are kept away from that awful, boy-ridden science ‘thing’.
I take such consolation from knowing that, somewhere, Tesco employees are helping to perpetuate gender stereotypes for the rest of us. I bet it’s a crack team of sociologists and behavioural psychologists, and not just a few, bored administrators mindlessly allocating science to boys and anything pink or kitchen-related to girls.
Or perhaps I’m wrong and you’re just a simple-minded corporate behemoth without the institutional intelligence or social sensibilities to do what’s right in this situation and follow the lead of Boots, for example. But hey! I’m just a girl. What do I know?
Tell the world.
*Dr Sarah Marr is a co-founder of SENS Foundation, and acted as its Executive Vice President until September 2011. She is also on the Advisory Board of the Lifeboat Foundation.
Sarah has a Bachelor’s Degree in Law, from the University of Oxford, and another in Theoretical Physics, from Imperial College London, where she also built the prototype web portal for the European grid computing network of the Large Hadron Collider.
Her postgraduate studies include a Master’s Degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Manchester, specializing in the nature of cultural misappropriation in Western subcultures and concepts of the body, the self and ‘belonging’. She has a PhD in Theoretical Physics from Imperial College London, covering the quantum and relativistic properties of black holes in discrete spacetimes.
Her previous position was as the Head of Operations of the UK political think-tank, Demos, where she also co-authored a global survey of public service design practices.
Since when were science toys just for boys?
Every time a girl sees a shelf of science-related toys under a sign that says “boys,”she is being told that the world thinks science is not for her.
By Tricia Lowther Published 26 February 2013 9:56
The major shortage of qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the UK means that the lack of women in STEM careers is an issue the government seem to take seriously. There have been several media articles about girls and science recently, but little attention has been paid to the messages children take in through toys. Play is the medium through which children learn about the world and imagine the possibilities open to them. Only 13 per cent of STEM employees are female, so why is it acceptable for science toys to be overwhelmingly marketed to boys?
Not long before Christmas a survey was carried out by the Let Toys Be Toys (LTBT) campaign. Forty different UK and Ireland retail branches were visited to see how toys were being marketed. LTBT found ten times as many stores promoted toolkits to boys than to girls, construction toys were three times as likely to be promoted to boys, and twice as many stores promoted chemistry sets to boys as to girls.
One of the most gendered shops in our survey was The Entertainer, which is divided into pink and blue sections labelled girls or boys toys. All the science toys, construction and warfare are in the boys section and the cleaning, prams, dolls, kitchens, etc are on the pink shelves. Marks and Spencer also did badly, with much of their packaging branded “Boy Stuff”. Campaigners photographed a “Boys’ Stuff” sign over shelves that included; a telescope, human skeleton, dinosaurs and globes, all of which there is no logical reason to label “boys”. This image was made into a campaign poster which went viral (see left), but has, as yet, garnered no response from M&S.
Toysellers today are sending out strongly gendered messages to an unprecedented degree. More toys are on the market than ever before and gender targeted selling is seen as profitable, but there’s a high social cost.
It’s hard to measure the extent to which toy marketing affects children, but we can be certain that it affects them. LTBT supporters have shared numerous stories of children who feel pressured not to play with the “wrong” toy. Despite this, we are often told that “boys and girls like different toys”. Children will actually play with anything that’s presented to them as exciting, but a nature/nurture debate on gender is beside the point. There’s no need to prove anything about the nature of gender to show that limiting children’s access to play opportunities is damaging.
Neuroplasticity suggests that children’s brains develop according to the toys they play with. Construction and science toys develop spatial and problem solving skills. If girls don’t play with this type of toy then they are unlikely to be as strong as boys in this area. Recent US research found toys that are not strongly gender-typed are more likely to develop a range of skills in children.
Besides the effect on brain development there is the question of gender stereotypes. Undoubtedly, children are heavily socialised by gender, and gendered toys can send some very limiting messages. Children don’t have the reasoning powers to see through the images they’re bombarded with. The UK has banned adverts for junk food to children, yet toy adverts with heavily stereotyped images continue. Car salesrooms do not have signs that say “men”, kitchen departments do not have signs that say “Women”, so why aren’t “Boy” and “Girl” toy signs seen as blatant discrimination? It would be unacceptable to specify toys by race, and it should be unacceptable to do so by gender.
LTBT’s critics say parents can buy toys from any shelf. That’s true, so why have them? Every time a girl sees a shelf of science related toys under a sign that says “boys”, she is being told that the world thinks science is not for her. People are guided by signs and often only look in one section, so if buying in “Girls”, they are unlikely to see any science toys, unless it’s one of the recent additions to the “girlie toy” canon; pink, sparkly and focused on attractiveness, like a perfume lab or make your own lip gloss kit. The connection between the toys children play with and the interests they later take up should be obvious.
The Let Toys be Toys campaign is petitioning retailers to organise toys by theme instead of gender. Science toys aimed at boys is a small part of the picture. We want children to feel free to play with the toys they choose, instead of being told, “that’s for girls” or “that’s a boys’ toy”. It can only be beneficial to see the toy market opened up to all children. If even one little girl finds herself with a science kit that she wouldn’t have otherwise had, it’s worth it. Who knows what she might one day discover?
This article originally appeared on The F-Word
- Tesco backtracks on labelling chemistry set as boys’ toy (guardian.co.uk)
- How parents are battling sexism in toy shops (independent.co.uk)
- Tesco keeps chemistry set as a boys’ toy despite protests (independent.co.uk)
- Chemistry: it’s a boy thing? (prospect.rsc.org)
- Tesco defends decision to label children’s chemistry set a boys’ toy (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)
- Tesco slammed by customers online for gender-biased toys (liberalconspiracy.org)
- Tesco to keep chemistry set as a boys’ toy despite protests (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)