Equalities minister: Playing with dolls will help young boys develop a caring side

Jo Swinson blamed a 'huge shortage' of male carers on gender 'stereotyping'

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Young boys should be encouraged to play with dolls to help develop their “nurturing and caring” instincts, the equalities minister, Jo Swinson, has argued. She condemned the stereotyping at an early age which eventually pushed men and women into different careers as she warned of the “huge shortage” of men working as carers.

Ms Swinson, who has a 12-month-old son, told MPs: “The biggest pool available for expansion is boys and young men, and we need to get them to consider caring as a profession. Again stereotyping is important, as are the messages we send children about the roles of men and women, and whether boys can be nurturing and caring and – yes, dare I say it? – play with dolls.  We should see habits of care and nurture as being just as appropriate for boys and men as for girls and women.”

Ms Swinson was speaking in a Commons debate in which the MP Paul Burstow warned that women comprised 82 per cent of the care workforce and many young men did not consider jobs in the profession.

Pointing out that just seven per cent of British engineers were female, she also said young women should be encouraged to study science, technology, engineering and maths and “open their horizons, rather than being led by dated stereotypes about what girls can do”.

Her comments will reignite the debate over whether toys should be targeted specifically at boys and girls. Fourteen major retailers, including Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s, have agreed to stop the labelling of toys by sex following a campaign launched two years ago. Jess Day, of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, told The Independent: “When boys feel free to play with dolls, they do. But very often they aren’t offered them in the first place because the marketing is so powerful.

“Parents may never consider buying a doll for boys. And when boys grow older they will quickly pick up that some people don’t think it’s suitable for them.”

She added: “It’s absurd to suggest that boys – even the most rumbustious ones – don’t have a caring and nurturing side.”

Ms Swinson’s Liberal Democrat colleague, Jenny Willott, complained last year that women were being forced into lower-paid jobs such as nursing because of early stereotyping. “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,” Ms Willott said. She urged toy manufacturers to make chemistry and building sets more appealing to girls to interest more women in science.

The Labour MP, Chi Onwurah, has argued it is “illegal to advertise a job as for men only but apparently fine to advertise a toy as for boys only”. She said: “Why should girls be brought up in an all-pink environment? It does not reflect the real world.”

The sports minister, Helen Grant, last year suggested that women who feel “unfeminine” when playing sport could take up other activities like “ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating”.