The term, ‘gender-neutral’ has a variety of connotations, but the main premise of the concept is to ensure products are suitable for both male and female genders. 

‘Why can’t boys play with Barbies and girls play with fire trucks?’

This is a question for the toy industry where clichéd views have become the norm. From the moment a child is born, friends and family innocently buy gendered baby products — pink colours for a girl, blue for a boy. As children get older, boys will receive toy trucks and the like while girls will be gifted baby dolls and mini kitchen sets.

The good news is that many have started to move away from this ideology by making simple changes. Amongst them, are such things as picking gender-neutral paint colours for a child’s bedroom or letting their child choose the toy they want to play with. 

Segregated Toy Stores

I used to work for a large toy retailer during my college years; something that gave me first-hand experience of observing how parents and children interact with one another when buying toys. I vividly recall a mother once coming into the store with her daughter to purchase the coveted Frozen Elsa Toddler Doll. Sadly, this particular doll had sold out and when I explained this to the mother, the daughter started to cry hysterically. Given the calamity, I offered to help find another toy for the little girl. However, her mother abruptly stopped me and said that the Elsa doll was the only toy she wanted. She refused point-blank to look at anything else.

This was interesting to me. Privately, I felt that the girl’s mother could at least have tried to inspire some curiosity in her, helping the child to explore the many other toys on offer; including puzzles, science kits and board games — all of which would have helped her daughter learn something new. Upon reflection, I realise this would have been a long shot given that the toy store had purposefully divided its aisles into coloured blocks. Pink and Purple for girls. Blue and Green for boys.  With the store divided this way, exploring toys outside of your comfort zone becomes more difficult for parents and children alike.

Stereotypes in Advertising

Along with retailers, the advertising industry has too readily allowed the cementing of gender stereotypes.  When asked: ‘What does the term “gender-neutral” mean to you?’, Emma Jones, a millennial from the UK, argued that this is a topic that the older generations need to start paying attention to. Whilst she does not find the gendered promotion of toys offensive, she does believe that brands need to become more progressive so that children can play with ‘whatever they want’.

I also asked Emma about her own experience with toys growing up. She recalled playing with both girl and boy toys. However, she also insists that girls playing with Hot Wheels or Diver Dan carries much less social judgement. Conversely, if a boy starts playing with traditionally ‘girls’ toys he more easily becomes a target of social scrutiny. She offered an example: at primary school, a male friend liked swapping glitter pens in lessons. When another male friend discovered this he became immediately embarrassed and denied this for fear of becoming the target of bullying. According to Emma: ‘… boys have a much harder time when it comes to playing with certain toys that may be regarded as “feminine”. There is a fear they will be teased or bullied by their peers’.

Stop the Gender Grooming

‘Let Toys Be Toys’ is a campaign group that has been advocating for better equality. It has been lobbying the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests along gender lines. The group has undertaken research into the differences in adverts targeting boys and girls. Their findings reveal that those adverts that target boys, use more aggressive language and often market things like toy weapons or construction sets. This is in stark contrast to the adverts that target girls. Here, the focus is more likely to be on grooming, dolls, or beauty.

Having overly gendered toys can be harmful to children in the long term, discouraging them from trying out other things.  In fact, the campaign makes a point about children benefitting from having access to a wide range of toys and play experiences, since play is integral to how children develop and learn about the world.

Stereotypes tend to leave scars. For instance, a female student may not feel comfortable or adequate in science class, or a male student may not be as willing to participate in a food technology class from fear of judgment from peers.

Some Unique Findings

My experience of working in a toy store made me think about my own childhood. I was very much into gendered toys — but didn’t exclude Barbies and other dolls. I did, however, start to wonder whether I had genuinely liked these toys, or if I was forced into liking them because of certain stereotypes. This is why I wanted to explore the topic further, and to date, have uncovered some fascinating insights through a survey that I had conducted to help with my research.

My sample consisted of 55 per cent female and 45 per cent male respondents from mixed age groups. When presented with the descriptions of twelve different toys (including a Frozen Elsa Doll, Lego and Science Kit), 82.5 per cent of respondents said that either gender could play with them — suggesting that people’s views have become more progressive.

There were also some compelling thoughts expressed by older participants. A 66-year old Executive said:

‘Toys should stimulate cognitive function rationally, creatively and spatially; including developing imagination’.

Another participant working as a lecturer in Child Care Studies argued:

‘Children should be able to make their choices when choosing how and when and where they play. As adults, we provide opportunities for play but children are then free to make those choices’.

Our views and opinions on what children should and shouldn’t play with are a product of hidden social rules many of us feel should be followed. But it’s time we were made to see that toys should be universal. They should enable children to explore their likes and dislikes without the pressure of having to conform to unnecessary and oftentimes outdated views.


Article by Shivani Govindia: Shivani is a Master’s student undertaking a degree in Advertising & Public Relations at Richmond — The American International University in London. She is currently looking into the reasons why more toys should be considered ‘gender-neutral’ and the role the advertising industry can play in this.

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