Jenny Willott, Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central [Not pictured: iconic orange Space Hopper]

Gender segregation of toys damaging STEM equality

Children's dreams are being decided by companies marketing toys as being specifically either for boys or for girls, a Government minister has said.

Business minister Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, insisted youngsters should not be made to feel guilty or ashamed for experimenting with different toys, adding boys should feel free to play with a pushchair and girls to kick a football.

Ms Willott said there were skills shortages across science, technology, engineering and maths, which would remain a concern as long as girls continued to feel that such worlds were not for them.

High-quality, rigorous research was required to help guide parents, teachers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers in the "right and responsible way forward", Ms Willott added.

The minister was speaking during a Westminster Hall debate on the gender-specific marketing of children's toys, an issue led by Labour's Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central.

The shadow minister criticised "big company marketing tactics" for leading to "aggressive gender segregation". Ms Onwurah said she worked as a professional engineer in three continents over two decades, where she encountered a male-dominated environment. However, she said she only felt she was really experiencing gender segregation when she walked into a toy shop.

Ms Willott told MPs it was fundamental to the UK economy's future to tackle gender-specific marketing of toys, adding the recent phenomenon to target blue at boys and pink at girls could prevent children from discovering their talents.

Ms Willott joked that Space Hoppers would not be their iconic orange if they were invented today, suggesting they would be pink and resemble a cupcake for girls and camouflaged and khaki-coloured for boys.

Gender-specific approaches are not fair on children as they learn constantly about how they are supposed to feel, behave and what would make them acceptable to their social group and family, Ms Willott said. "It's not fair to make little girls feel that they shouldn't be kicking footballs or building with Lego and it's not fair to make little boys feel ashamed of playing netball or playing with a pushchair or pushing a doll along or whatever.

"Children learn through play and if we want children to explore their skills and their interests and to develop fully to the limits of their potential we musn't limit that at the age of two or five or 10 by restricting their choices of play.

"A boy who has never had a sewing kit might never discover his talent for design and a girl who has never had a Meccano set may never discover she has real potential as an engineer.

"Clearly not every girl that plays with Lego is going to be an architect, but why should we limit girls' aspirations at so early an age by making it so rigidly defined?"

Ms Willott said photos of toys advertised in the 1970s showed a lot more bright colours and both boys and girls playing with them.

During her speech to introduce the debate, Ms Onwurah said she wanted her niece and nephew to grow up in a world where toys were toys and not "colour-coded constraints on their choices". She told MPs there had been no increase in women undertaking engineering degrees compared to 30 years ago while the UK had the lowest proportion of female professional engineers in Europe, at approximately 6 per cent.

Ms Onwurah warned the marketing approach could lock-out girls from pursuing careers in male-dominated industries. She said: "At some point over the last three decades the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to figure out what to buy without colour-coded gender labelling. That means Science Museum toys labelled for boys, while miniature dustpan and brushes are girls stuff, according to Sports Direct.

"This aggressive gender-segregation is a consequence of big company marketing tactics. But what may be driving big company profit-margin is limiting our children's choices and their experiences. And it's ultimately limiting the UK's social and economic potential, as well as helping to maintain the gender pay gap."

Responding to the MP’s comments, Stephanie Fernandes, Principal Policy Advisor for Education & Skills at the IET, said: “The message 'pink is for girls, blue is for boys' can create a gender divide that hampers girls' progress at school and holds back women in the workplace. However, we know of many young females who became interested in engineering through playing with Lego, even if it was pink. The main message is that children should be allowed to make their own minds up about what toys they want to play with. All children should be given equal opportunities.”

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