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Signs of the Times: Why A Mighty Girl Supports Gender-Neutral Toy Signage

A Q&A by the A Mighty Girl Team

When Target announced that they would be removing gendered signs from the toy sections of its US stores, A Mighty Girl – and many in our community – were thrilled. Our Facebook post announcing this change, as of this writing, went viral with over 75,000 likes and 30,000 shares. While the response in our community was overwhelmingly positive, as word of the announcement spread, some commentators also had questions and concerns about the change. How would this affect shoppers? What does it mean for girls, boys, and parents? And, perhaps the root of many concerns: what’s the big deal about gendered marketing anyway?

LEGO ad, 1981 LEGO ad, 1981

As supporters of ending gender discrimination and stereotyping, we applaud Target’s decision – and the many other efforts like it happening both in North America and around the world – so we wanted to address some of the most common questions we’ve been hearing about gender-neutral signage and marketing: how it works, why it’s important, and how it fits into other efforts to change the way the world sees girls and boys.

Gender-neutral marketing and merchandising is about much more than political correctness; instead, it’s a sign of the times, one that points to a shift away from strictly limited gender roles and towards a world where everyone can pursue their interests and talents without feeling like the odd one out. By the end of this blog post, we hope those with concerns will see why this decision is about so much more than signs. And, if you'd like to explore these issues in more depth than is possible in a short post, we've also recommend several books on this topic in the resource section below. Among the recommendations is an excellent new release for parents filled with advice on how to raise kids who are less constrained by gender stereotypes, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue

If you share our feelings about gender-neutral toy marketing, please support companies that are doing the right thing by changing the way they organize their toy departments. You can leave a message congratulating Target for their decision on their Facebook page.

What’s the big deal about gendered marketing to kids anyway?

Many people expressed confusion about why gendered marketing matters, especially when it comes to kids. Gender stereotyping seems on the surface like an adult concept, and not something that children are aware of in their day-to-day lives. But the truth is that children are particularly sensitive to the information that society presents about gender. The job of a child is to grow and learn, and to do so they absorb amazingly small details in their environment – including details about gender. As a result, gendered marketing has the power to send subtle but influential messages about what women and men should be and do.

Gendered marketing can also determine what kids play with – and therefore, what skills they practice. Education reformer Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child,” and anyone who’s seen the concentration on the face of a child at play would agree. But when we encourage kids to play with different categories of toys based on their gender, kids practice different things: boys encouraged to play with building sets develop problem solving and spatial skills, while girls encouraged to play with dolls, develop empathy and nurturing skills. Repeat this daily for a dozen years and suddenly you have boys who are “naturally” better at building and girls who are “naturally” better at nurturing.

Most importantly, gendered marketing limits both boys and girls with artificial boundaries. We believe that kids are happiest and best off when they can pursue what interests them most – that’s how kids discover what will fulfill them and what they can contribute to the world. But when we tell kids what they should be interested in through gendered marketing, we restrict their exploration into narrow boxes that may have nothing to do with their capabilities – and that’s not good for kids or for the world they’re going to build in the future.

Girls can't be scientists? The science section from a Toys "R" Us Holiday Catalog shows only boys playing with science and technology-related toys Girls can't be scientists? The science section from a Toys "R" Us Holiday Catalog shows only boys playing with science and technology-related toys

Why can’t parents just go into the “wrong” aisle to buy toys their child likes?

Many parents buy toys from sections designated both 'girl' or 'boy' regardless of the sex of their child. But even at a very young age, children pick up on the subtle messages about what they “should” be interested in, and may start avoiding the aisles they are interested in for fear of not being a “real” girl or boy. Many parents whose children’s interests fall outside what is considered traditional for their gender report that their kids will send siblings down the aisle, or pretend that they’re buying a gift for a friend – or even outright refuse to get toys they like any more, replacing the toys they love with ones that are just okay, but come from the "right" aisle.

The messages sent by gendered toy aisles are also less subtle than adults often think. If a girl asks for science kits and is directed to the “boys' toys” section, the message couldn’t be clearer: science is the domain of boys and not a "normal" interest for girls. Retailers found this a problem when Disney’s Frozen became a huge hit with both boys and girls: suddenly, they were faced with sending dozens of boys to the girls' side of the store, where the other Disney merchandise was stocked, and many of them watched purchases disappear as boys refused to go.

And, of course, gendered marketing influences others around the child that the parents can’t control. When a grandparent or a birthday party guest sees gendered marketing in a store, they’re likely to buy based on gender, rather than first considering a child’s actual interests – regardless of what particular aisle such toys might be relegated to.

In the end, it’s important to remember there is no such thing as a “girl’s toy” or a “boy’s toy” – nothing innate about any toy makes it more suited to either gender. These divisions in the toy aisle are artificial, solely imposed by social expectation, and therefore something we can choose to change.

But aren’t girls and boys naturally different? Won’t they pick traditional toys anyway?

It’s very hard to know if girls and boys are innately different, or if they pick up their differences from socialization. Research shows that we respond to girls and boys differently from birth, or even during pregnancy: Carole R. Beal found that, if parents learn their baby’s sex before birth, they will describe boys’ movements in utero as more active and girls’ as gentler. But even if there are some innate differences in general between boys and girls, what’s true for some or most still isn’t true for all. Children can and should have diverse interests and shouldn’t be classified simply by their gender.

Even after removing gender divisions in toy sections, kids will still be free to seek out whatever toys interest them the most. As a result, for children who typically play within their gender’s traditional role, this change probably won’t be significant. However, for children who prefer a broad range of toys – from both sides of the toy department – it’s a clear signal that their choices are acceptable, and even encouraged by the people around them.

Girls Liking Pink Is Not the Problem "Girls Liking Pink Is Not the Problem." Artist Unknown.

What’s wrong with girls liking dolls/pink and boys liking trucks/blue?

Nothing! Kids should always be free to choose what they like, and no one is saying that kids can’t play with toys considered traditional for their gender. At the same time, there is a problem when we assume that all girls will like pink and dolls and all boys will like blue and trucks. Kids are very flexible in their play; parents, as well as preschools and daycare centers, who have a wide variety of ungendered toys usually find that kids mix toys freely and imaginatively in their games: Care Bears riding a dump truck, or giving the race cars a good wash and wax in the play kitchen sink.

As well, it’s important to remember that these divisions are often more recent than we think! Until the 1940s, pink was a masculine color, and blue was a feminine one. Preconceptions about what boys and girls “naturally” prefer can and do change as the society around them changes.

Nothing about toy availability changes with this merchandising switch, so if you have a girl who adores her pink princesses or a boy who loves his camo green toy soldier set, they will still be able to get the toys they love. The only difference will be how those toys are labeled on the shelves. Removing gendered toy signage doesn’t take away choices; it opens up choices to more children by making it clear that all toys are for all kids.

When I was a child, I played with girl/boy toys. Why are kids and parents today so sensitive?

Hard as it may be to believe, gendered marketing is actually much more prevalent today than it was in the past! Elizabeth Sweet’s 2014 article from the Atlantic found that the Sears catalog from 1975 explicitly marketed only 2% of their toys to only girls or boys. But after the mid-1980s, gendered toy marketing returned with a vengeance, and now toys are more gendered than ever before.

Gendered infant toys - two version of the Fisher-Price ring stacker Gendered infant toys - two version of the Fisher-Price ring stacker

Adding to this gendering of toys is the “pinkification” of many toys that used to be gender neutral. Pretend play toys that represented real-life things (play kitchens, school buses, and other similar toys) used to be made in realistic colors: today, there is often a realistically colored version and a pink version, or, in the case of toys that have been gendered towards girls, a pink version only. (Toys that imitate household activities like cooking, cleaning, and caring for children are some of the most frequently pinkified items, which draws out how kids today face a double whammy of stereotype and gendered marketing.)

Even classic infant toys, like shape sorters and ring stackers, are being reissued in both rainbow and pink versions – something that belies the argument that manufacturers are making what kids like, since infants aren’t choosing these toys. In fact, this is a good illustration of the true reason manufacturers gender toys: it generates more profits when parents are encouraged to buy both a “boy” and a “girl” version, rather than passing one item down to multiple children of different genders.

The end result is that kids who play contrary to the stereotypes associated with gender are faced with more pressure to conform than ever before. Parents who push back against these gendered messages aren’t being overly sensitive: they’re responding to a real and limiting change in the way we market toys to children.

How am I going to find the items I’m looking for?

Not separating a toy section by gender doesn’t equal a lack of organization; most toy sections will instead be organized by theme, brand, and age. A good example of this is the traditional board game section, which has rarely been gendered in the way that the rest of the toy department has been. Toy stores that don't organize their inventory by gender most often use thematic categories like vehicle toys, dress-up clothes, science kits, and pretend play toys to help direct shoppers.

In fact, stores organized by theme and age are easier to shop! When toys are organized by theme, you know exactly where to go: a vet dress-up set (that might be equally loved by both a girl or boy) will be in the dress-up section. Similarly, if you’re looking for something new for a girl who loves building sets, you can go to one aisle, "Building Toys," to see the whole range of possibilities, rather than bouncing between aisles labeled “Building Sets” and “Girls' Building Sets.”

Additionally, since many categories, brands, and licenses are shopped by both girls and boys, organizing by theme eliminates questions about where individual stores have stocked these items.

Many independent toy stores and several major store chains in Europe are already organizing their toy sections in this way, and they have received significant positive feedback about the ease of shopping when toys are organized by theme. (As a bonus for the retailers, sales can go up as kids find what interests them more easily.) In the end, it’s no more inconvenient than when a store reorganizes its department seasonally, and shoppers will still be able to find the products they want to buy.

"Dolled" by Chris Hallbeck "Dolled" from Maximumble. Comic by Chris Hallbeck.

What about people buying gifts for kids? How will they know what to choose?

The truth is that gendered toy signage never guaranteed a good pick for a gift: if you don’t know a child’s interests, it’s difficult to choose. Even if a boy likes traditionally masculine toys, you still don’t know if he’d prefer a dump truck or a fire engine. Shopping by interest, on the other hand, is quick and easy. If you know a girl likes science, you can make one stop in the “Science” aisle – much more efficient than circling through multiple “girl toy” aisles trying to decide on a "girl-designated" toy that may not interest her anyway.

Organizing toys by theme also encourages gift-givers to expand their ideas of what they think a child would like. Shopping by gender often completely eliminated categories for gift shoppers: what if that boy would be okay with a new dump truck but thrilled with the new My Little Pony collection? Changing gendered toy signage will encourage shoppers to ask parents about a child’s interests, which creates a much better chance of kids getting a gift they’ll love!

Why should stores have to change just because some parents are offended?

As our points above show, this isn’t just about being offended – there are good reasons to make this change, for kids, consumers, and stores. Stores that succeed do so because they respond to the concerns of their shoppers: they bring in new merchandise, offer different discounts, and change their merchandising, all because they are listening to what consumers say. So if enough parents care about these changes, it’s a responsible move for store or corporate management to make them., for example, also removed "boys" and "girls" designations from their toy section last May to widespread customer support.

To people who have commented, “Who cares about the signs?”, If it doesn’t make any difference to you how the toys are labeled, this change shouldn’t affect you at all. But to people concerned about the limitations imposed by gender-specific signage, they will support retailers who are responsive to these concerns and and the stores will see the benefit of that in both positive feedback and increased sales.


What else needs to happen to address gender segregation in children’s toys?

Target’s decision is a great first step, but as many people have observed, reorganizing the toy department isn’t a complete solution to gendered toy marketing: manufacturers have an important role to play as well. As long as toy packaging is gendered, with pink and blue backgrounds and pictures of only girls or only boys on the box, kids are going to be reluctant to consider those toys. Advertising needs to be considered as well: it does no good to make a gender-neutral stainless steel play kitchen if your catalog pictures and TV commercials only feature girls. Science kits, arts and crafts sets, building sets, and action figures are just some of the many products that frequently feature gendered packaging and advertisement, despite being products that both girls and boys love.

As retailers like Target – and hopefully other large chains – make a commitment to ending gender segregation in the toy department, we hope that their influence will also encourage manufacturers to change the way that they package their products. Putting both girls and boys on the box or in the commercial is also an easy way for toy companies to increase the number of kids who are interested in their toys.

Shouldn’t we be focused on bigger/more important examples of stereotyping and discrimination?

Absolutely, and people and organizations who support these changes do – A Mighty Girl regularly tackles other gender issues, including representation of girls and women in “nontraditional” areas like trades and STEM, stereotyping in adult advertising, and other examples of discrimination. But attitudes about girls and boys (and women and men) are built at an early age – in the world of play, where kids practice being adults.

Moreover, while the organization of toy stores may seem like a small thing, small things add up. While enormous advances have been made in gender equality – for example, legislation against discrimination by gender during hiring – the hundreds and hundreds of small biases combine to perpetuate stereotypes and biases. Having a “pink aisle” of dolls, play kitchens, and princess toys and a "boy aisle" of engineering toys, trains, and tool sets may seem small, but it sends a clear message: boys do this, girls do that, and choosing to go against your gender role is strange at best and wrong at worst. These stereotypes and biases hold back all of our children, both girls and boys.

By working towards making toys gender-neutral, we are setting the stage for a new generation of adults without preconceived notions of what women and men can do. By encouraging kids to follow their interests, whatever they may be, every field ends up with more people who are passionate and dedicated to their career, whether it’s education or science, art or construction. It means more happy kids, confident in their choices and accepting of the choices of others. And, in the end, it means that kids can grow up to change the world – and that’s good for all of us.

Additional Recommended Resources

  • A Mighty Girl's toy section was curated with gender-neutral play in mind! To explore how an online store organized by theme works, visit our Toy Collection or mouse over "Toys" on our main menu bar to view our toy directory.
  • For books that tackle what research actually shows about the differences — or lack of differences — between boys and girls, visit our Gender Research section.
  • To read about the increase in gendered marketing of the past few years, check out this articles in the Ms. Magazine blog and The New York Times.

If you support changes to make toy sections gender-neutral, please spread the word! If you'd like to congratulate Target on its decision, visit their Facebook page.

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