According to 2013 research carried out for the giant catalogue retailer Argos, more than one in ten parents buys their children toys that they hope will encourage them down a specific career path. This research suggests that there is a direct link between the toys that children play with and the vocational skills and interests they acquire in early life.
The data backs this up: there is a quantifiable relationship between the type of play people remember enjoying as children and the kind of work they are engaged in as adults. Two-thirds of people working in maths-related roles, for example, reported having been interested in puzzle-type toys as kids.
It is in this context that toy manufacturers’ practice of targeting particular toys at girls and others at boys becomes problematic. In categorising toys by gender, manufacturers essentially define the types of vocational skills and interests appropriate for girls and for boys to engage with and acquire. This, in turn, implies that certain jobs are for boys and that others are for girls.
This division of the toy market along gender lines is something that has gained some focus in the recent past. An online discussion on the topic of toys and gender by a group of concerned parents gave rise to an advocacy campaign called Let Toys be Toys.
The campaign’s literature – as well as research it cites – argues that toys function as social texts that inculcate kids into traditional, hegemonic gendered discourses. Toys convey a society’s ideology. The ideology that they convey, it turns out, is, for the most part, a profoundly conservative narrative about traditional gender roles based on normative ideas about how heterosexual western men and women ought to interact.
The gender divide within the toy market can be neatly encapsulated by the contrasting figures of the action hero and the princess. The hero serves as the archetypal embodiment of the toy industry’s view of masculinity, while the image of the princess serves as a distillation of the industry’s ideas about femininity. In other words, the toy industry sees masculinity as being active and aggressive, and sees femininity as being passive and submissive. The princess locked in the tower waiting to be saved.
This crude hero-princess dynamic filters down through the entire toy industry, manifesting itself at every turn, sometimes in plain sight and sometimes in highly nuanced ways. The net result is that girls’ and boys’ toys take on distinct characteristics that correspond to toy manufacturers’ hegemonic worldview on gender.
Specifically, boys’ toys often tend to foster technical knowledge and competence that prepares them for a career in the industrial economy. Girls’ toys, meanwhile, place an emphasis on domesticity and nurturing and are designed to prepare girls for a life of homemaking. When girls’ toys do represent women at work, the women are almost invariably depicted in caring or service roles
In this context, the former Conservative UK junior education minister, Elizabeth Truss, has publicly warned that toy manufacturers risk turning girls off careers in maths and science unless they provide alternative play options for them.
Her fears are demonstrably well-founded: 82% of workers in caring, leisure and other services are female. Girls, meanwhile, are very much underrepresented in STEM subjects at school, meaning that they are more or less excluded from the supply pipeline that leads to lucrative positions in major tech companies.
Women are overrepresented in the lowest paid sectors of the workforce and this copper-fastens the gender pay gap in place. These recent insights into the toy industry and the manner in which young girls are groomed, however, would suggest that the choice, on the part of women, to enter the lowest-paid jobs is not an entirely free one.
Toys, then, are far from trivial. This is a matter of real importance with regard to women and their position in the workplace.
How far does this problem extend? Every winter Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ, produces a special ‘Toy’ edition of the flagship Late Late Show. This programme is funded by the public through a license fee. In some years, the producers of the programme share a full list of toys featured on the show online. Part of this list is categorized as ‘boys’ and another part as ‘girls’. Given that the Late Late is such a staple of middle Ireland’s media diet, these lists are likely to reflect popular opinion as to what toys are suitable for boys and for girls.
From the point of view of a trade union, the greatest point of interest is around those toys that relate directly to particular careers or jobs. Does RTÉ’s Toy Show (implicitly or explicitly) suggest that certain jobs are appropriate for one gender rather than the other?
Based on the available toy lists (2009, 2011, 2013) 67% of toys categorized as ‘Boys’ Toys’ on The Late Late Toy Show explicitly refer to a particular career choice. Across the three years for which data was available farming was the most frequent career to which toys categorised as being for boys referred (34 toys in total).
The second most commonly referred-to job was that of construction or engineering (17 toys).
Finally, the third most frequently featured career was military and law enforcement (16 toys).
The boys’ toys shown often tend to foster technical knowledge and competence that prepares them for a career in the industrial economy. The presence of toys depicting careers in the military bespeaks toy manufacturers’ view of masculinity as aggressive or domineering.
In stark contrast, just 14% of featured toys categorised as being for Girls referred to specific careers. Many of the careers depicted in the Girls’ toys were low-paid jobs (for example a retail assistant or a hairdresser).
Interestingly, almost as many Girls’ toys (11%) referred to motherhood and homemaking as depicted jobs outside the home.
Finally a large cohort of the Girls’ toys focussed on girls’ appearance or dress. Girls’ toys place an emphasis on domesticity and nurturing and are designed to prepare girls for a life of homemaking.When girls’ toys do represent women at work, the women are almost invariably depicted in caring or service roles.
Posted by: Lughan Deane and Patricia O’Mahony