When a Four-Year-Old Girl Thinks Science Toys Are Only For Boys, Something is Very Wrong

Some friends had an upsetting family trip to the Natural History Museum in London.

They have a bright, bold, and delightful daughter called Zoe – she amused me no end when inventively used our toys to enthusiastically stage a river raid on Noah’s Ark by Spider-Man & Hulk to rescue the animals from the clutches of supervillains Annihilus & Joker. Sitting cosily inside the stereotyped marketing category of ‘Girl’ is seemingly not for her.

So at the Natural History Museum shop, it was a shock to her parents when then 4-year-old Zoe, after carefully inspecting the general science toys on display, sighed and lamented how they were only for boys.

Zoe’s mother was so upset about this that she wanted to cry. This is definitely not the way they wanted to bring their daughter up, and in fact they thought they were doing well by giving her trucks and other non-traditional girls toys. Their only conclusion was that this message must have come from outside the home.

It indicates the scale of the problem with gendered marketing. As parents, we do what we can to instil our children with positive & empowering messages and influences, to encourage them to discover what will engage & inspire them. But gendered marketing is so threaded into our everyday life – shops, TV, movies, magazines, and peers – that its effects will probably permeate through whatever defences we put up.

People like myself and others can rail against this. We may even convince the occasional retailer or manufacturer to change the way they define their products. One thing some toy makers have done is produce ‘girl’ versions of toys. You know the sort of thing, tool boxes, guns, and even science kits, that instead of being ‘normal’ colours, favour only shades of pink.

Some people (usually toy industry people) hail these as an ingenious development. But to me it simply reinforces the ‘pink is for girls’ mentality. They may play with the ‘perfume factory science kit’, but what happens when girls see an item that isn’t pink? They may assume it’s for boys and ignore it. What do boys take away from this? That only pink things are for girls, but this also excludes them from the likes of baby dolls and kitchen sets.

While we have this mentality, there will be countless stories where a girl decides a career isn’t for her because it’s not presented as such, or a boy may think being home with children is for mothers only. Children may privately carry on in this way of thinking their entire lives, perhaps even perpetuating it when they become adults. Who knows, maybe they’ll move into toy & children’s clothes marketing.

I actively encourage my daughter to play with toys that are not in the ‘pink aisle’, and to also wear clothes from the ‘boy’ section too. But as our daughter gets older, and seeks out her own media, the marketeers will be able to reach her directly. The peer group pressure upon her to conform to the identity portrayed in these messages will also grow.

The retailers and manufacturers in question claim they are only feeding demand, but if as a consequence our children can grow up with the belief that science – and any tech or engineering role – is only for boys, something is very wrong. At least Zoe’s parents became aware of the the issue, and have managed to turn it around with her, by getting her a dress-up labcoat, science kits, and they even had a female chemical engineer telling Zoe how cool her job is! Many children will not be this lucky.

I hope the colour palette of childhood in retail evolves. That pink and pastels stop being the exclusive domain of our girls. That the whole spectrum is opened up for all. Luckily, there are entrepreneurial companies spotting the gap in the market for something beyond pink and blue.

In the US, the #WearYourSuperheroes Day was created by a young girl in support of her sister, who was teased for her love of superheroes. Whenever my daughter runs around the playground in her beloved superhero cape, I know (because they tell us) many boys and girls notice and have their already formed assumptions challenged.

Girl Wearing Cape, Female Superhero, supergirl, superhero fancy dress, gendered marketing to childrenI dearly hope my daughter’s love of all kinds of colours, toys, and interests continues, that she doesn’t get directed exclusively down the pink aisle – and that we inspire others to join her too.

An earlier version of this post appeared here.

6 thoughts on “When a Four-Year-Old Girl Thinks Science Toys Are Only For Boys, Something is Very Wrong”

  1. I spent the early years of my daughters life refusing to dress her in pink and have never bought her Barbies etc (even gave them away when given as gifts). At 3/4 she had already become bored with the limitations on the ‘girls’ aisles in toy shops and the fact that fancy dress for girls was limited to being princesses or fairies. She is now 12 and is very aware of the narrow minded portrayal of females by marketing and advertising companies. Watching the TV the other day a powdered milk advert came on demonstrating how it prepared babies for what they want to be in life – she tutted and said ‘Oh yeah – cos all girls wanna be ballet dancers’ whereas the boys can be scientists and mountain climbers. If she can spot it at such a young age shouldn’t everyone get wise and rebel?

  2. Thank you!
    I was just in a toy store with my nephew trying to look for a toy for him, when I noticed that there’s this ocean creatures set, and a dinosaur set that was in an aisle labelled “boys toys” and “boys roleplay”, with the science toys in the adjacent aisle. It was not directly labelled for boys, but it was obviously in the “blue aisle”.
    I have so much respect for this blog.

  3. It is strange how colour is associated with the gender of your child. We get told about how hansom our son is! It’s only because our daughter is in blue or another colour that is not pink. But the thing I don’t get is that the women that say it are wearing blue them self’s. And the fact that a lot of men wear pink yet as a child can not been seen in pink.

    1. Yep. And the same goes for characters and lifestyles associated with boys or girls – we have female pilots, scientists and the like, so why not encourage these in girls. Many men are successful in food or fashion, yet these are seen as interests for girls only.

    2. Yep, that irritates me too. Giving colours a gender is so bloody ridiculous! Especially when, as you point out, most grown women aren’t decked out in head to toe pink, nor men exclusively in blue. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I remember buying a little baby band T-shirt that I thought was cute, and which happened to be black. I showed my then mother-in-law who immediately exclaimed “oh, so you’re expecting a boy!” . It seemed to her ( and others) such a strange notion to want to introduce other colours ( and personality) into a little girl’s life. After she was born, I dressed her in a range of colours ( pink included, as I didn’t want to demonise the colour, let alone assign it a gender), but when she was in any colour other than pink, people always assumed she was a boy. It’s quite absurd. As she grew, I actively disregarded “boy and girl” marketing, and bought her toys that reflected her interests and curiosities. I don’t know why this still seems some sort of radical idea in this day and age! She had toy cars and trucks, science kits, dolls, stuffed animals, and costumes ranging from pirates to fairies. My daughter is now 8, and displays an interest in a wide range of subjects, because i’ve allowed her to have options. The thought of children being shamed ( and i’ve seen it- too many times) by their own parents for daring to show an interest in something that isn’t the “right colour” stupefies me. It’s not just narrowminded, but extremely destructive, and a great way to severely limit a child’s emotional and intellectual capacity, not to mention set them up with all manner of unnecessary insecurities.

  4. I shared your friends’ shock when my 3yo son said ladies couldn’t be scientists – I can only imagine how mortifying it is when your daughter says it. Maybe they would like my Tara Binns books, which show a little girl doing different jobs and enjoying her adventures. She’s a great role model who shows little girls they can be or do anything. I’m still writing the Scientist one, but there is an Engineer one she might like… http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tara-Binns-Crash-Test-Genius/dp/0993008216/

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