In recent years, the issue of gender neutrality in kids’ worlds has had increasing attention from the media. In some cases, the kids themselves have drawn attention to the issue. In 2011, a young girl called Riley voiced her opinion on the types of toys she sees surrounding her in a toyshop, making her YouTube video go viral with over 5 million views. She says “it’s not fair for all the girls to buy princesses and the boys to buy superheroes… the girls want superheroes AND the boys want superheroes .”
As experts in the kids, youth and family industry, we know that Riley is not alone in her thoughts. We often run focus groups with kids and teens and the answers to our questions reveal all types of in-built gender stereotypes from the types of toys the boys and girls should
play with, to the types of jobs they aspire to have when they grow up.
A recent BBC Two documentary ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’
looks at the opinions of seven year olds in a school on the Isle of Wight and revealed some striking differences between how they view their own gender versus their counterparts.
It is suggested that the anatomy of kids’ brains are almost identical between the sexes at the younger ages – so are these gender based opinions a result of how we treat our kids, and what influence, if any, will it have on their futures? Is it all a natural part of growing up or will it have any influence on our youngsters in the future? Is calling your daughter ‘a princess’ and your son ‘a champ’ a simple positive reinforcement or is this, in some way, encouraging a self-fulfilling prophecy for their futures?
The BBC Two documentary went on to suggest that how kids view themselves has a subsequent negative effect on academic development and the way they interact with others. The boys’ perception that they should be ‘strong and shouldn’t cry’ meant that they struggled to express their emotions, whilst the girls perception of themselves as being ‘pretty and less strong’ contributed to a lower self-esteem and a lower likelihood to attempt numerical challenges. The documentary went on to experiment with removing all instances of gender within the school and was successful in breaking down the confidence barriers among the girls and the emotional barriers among the boys, suggesting that the way we interact with our kids has a deeper influence on their longer term development .
Even among some of the older ages, we see some stark differences in how girls and boys perceive themselves. Our Youth Squads segmentation across all 7-14 year olds has revealed that the largest boys Squad is primarily defined by success and popularity, making up nearly a quarter of all boys aged 7-14 (Ambitious All-Stars, 24% of all boys aged 7-14) whilst over 1 in 10 girls aged 9-14 fall into a squad who fear judgement and are more insecure (Material Mimics, 16% of all girls 7-14).
Following the experiment run by the BBC, it seems that a removal of gender labels is likely to have a positive effect on kids’ perceptions of themselves and their subsequent development and we, as a society, have already taken steps to change this. In September 2017, retailer John Lewis announced they were removing any labelling of boys and girls on children’s clothing and other high-street retailers such as H&M and Zara have released unisex clothing collections as well [3,4].
Even within the toy world, LEGO have begun to market their products more towards girls as well as boys by releasing ‘LEGO Ideas Women of NASA range’, to inspire and educate the girls about ground breaking women in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) .
Although retailers are becoming more inclusive of all genders, some were still met by a backlash from the public suggesting that we still have some way to go in changing young Riley’s opinion that “the companies try and trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want to buy
” [1,3]. Nevertheless, small changes in the present can lead to big changes in the future, and we all have a part to play in increasing gender neutrality when interacting with kids around us.