Gender-neutral toys: Why dressing your daughter in pink 'damages the future of our economy'

Jenny Willott MP and Labour's Chi Onwurah explain why limiting children's play may impact their future career choices and hurt British industry

Felicity Morse
Thursday 06 February 2014 11:35 GMT

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Dressing your daughter in pink and buying her ‘girly’ toys damages the future of our economy, a Government minister has said.

Jenny Willott, the Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs, expressed her opposition to the gender-specific marketing of children's toys during a Westminster Hall debate led by Labour's Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central.

The Liberal Democrat Business minister 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.

She said by limiting our children’s toys, we tell our daughters and sons their gender "defines the roles they will play in society well into the future and defines what dreams they may have".

The gender-specific marketing of toys was “not just a side issue” but was “fundamentally important to our economy,” she added.

Limiting how children learn through play could impact on skills shortages across science, technology, engineering and maths, she argued. Girls could grow up feeling these careers were not suitable for their gender.

Shadow minister Ms Onwurah has a personal interest in the issue. She worked as a professional engineer in three continents over two decades, yet despite this she only felt she was really experiencing gender segregation when she walked into a toy shop.

She told MPs there had been no increase in women undertaking engineering degrees compared with 30 years ago while the UK had the lowest proportion of female professional engineers in Europe at 6 per cent.

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 said: “I am not calling for legislation.

“But others do observe that it is illegal to advertise a job as for men only but apparently fine to advertise a toy as for boys only.

“Why should girls be brought up in an all-pink environment? It's now got to the point where it is difficult to buy toys for girls in particular, which are not pink, princess-primed and/or fairy-infused.”

“It does not reflect the real world.”

There is a growing campaign to end gender marketing of toys. In December, Marks and Spencers agreed to gender-neutral toy packaging after complaints that their "Boys Stuff" and "Little Miss Arty" ranges were stereotyping children and limiting their growth. The company withdrew their range after being publicly called out by The Independent’s Jane Merrick and politician Stella Creasy. Toy R Us in Stockholm relaunched in December with a gender-neutral revamp. However gender-marketing is still big business when it comes to children’s toys.

Ministers reflected on how the adage “pink for girls and blue for boys” is a recent phenomenon and has been used by toy companies to boost profits.

Ms Onwurah said: “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.”

Ed Miliband used the growing gender pay gap to lambast David Cameron at PMQs on Wednesday. He told the Chamber: “Why, for the first time in five years, has the gap between men and women’s pay increased? …because the minimum wage is losing value, because of the growth of zero hours contracts, and the problem women have accessing childcare.”

Figures from the ONS in August showed that despite more women being in work than ever, women are more likely to be in badly paid sectors – 77 per cent of UK administrative and secretarial workers are female, for example. Women form two-thirds of those earning less than a living wage and three-quarters of those in part-time work. There’s also a "motherhood pay penalty" : mothers earn 26 per cent less than fathers. A study last March showed female graduates can expect to earn thousands of pounds a year less than their male counterparts.

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