Why gender-neutral toy options matter, according to experts

·5 min read

Lego announced Monday that it plans to remove gender bias from its toys on the heels of new research from the company that shows girls feel restrained by predisposed notions.

The research, which surveyed nearly 7,000 parents and kids aged 6 to 14 in China, Czech Republic, Japan, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, found that girls are generally less supportive of typical gender biases than boys. The researchers found that 74 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls feel that some activities are “just” for girls or boys. Researchers found that 82 percent of girls think it’s OK for girls to play football and boys to practice ballet, compared to just 71 percent of boys.

But the survey found that parents are most likely to imagine a man in certain jobs, regardless of whether they have a son, daughter or both. Parents were almost six times as likely to think of scientists and athletes as men than women and more than eight times more likely to think of engineers as men than women. Many children shared the same thoughts, although the researchers found that girls were more likely than boys to think a range of professions would be good for women and men.

“Our insights further indicate that girls are typically encouraged into activities that are more cognitive, artistic and related to performance compared to boys who are more likely to be pushed into physical and STEM-like activities,” Lego shared in a press release.

As a result of their findings, the company said it’s committed to making its toys more inclusive and “free of gender bias and harmful stereotypes.”

Lego’s announcement coincides with California Governor Gavin Newsom signing a new law that requires large department stores to provide a gender-neutral section for child care items and toys. Retailers can still have aisles that are marketed directly to boys and girls if they wish, though. “Part of it is to make sure if you're a young girl that you can find a police car, fire truck, a periodic table or a dinosaur,” Assemblyman Evan Low told the Los Angeles Times. "And then similarly, if you're a boy, if you're more artistic and want to play with glitter, why not? Why should you feel the stigma of saying, 'Oh, this should be shamed' and going to a different location?”

Under the new law, retailers will need to comply by Jan. 1, 2024, or face fines.

Dr. Robert Keder, a developmental pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s, applauds the moves. He tells Yahoo Life that he used to work in the toy section of a department store and “dreaded” cleaning those aisles because the toys were so obviously divided by gender stereotypes. “Not all boys want to play with G.I. Joes and not all girls like pink,” he tells Yahoo Life.

But the moves have raised some questions on social media about what, exactly, a gender-neutral toy is.

“A gender-neutral toy is something that doesn’t reinforce the standard imposed gender stereotype,” Keder explains. It may have colors that are considered more gender neutral, like yellow or green, or have a mix of female and male characters.

“A gender-neutral toy doesn’t advance, display or suggest societal stereotypes of gender preference,” clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. “My favorite example is a simple fundamental one that boy’s colors are blue and girl’s colors are pink. What sense does that make?”

Journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren't A**holes, tells Yahoo Life that research shows that "the more gendered the toys are that kids play with, the more strongly they believe in gender stereotypes when they are older, like that 'boys shouldn't cry' and that 'girls should look pretty.'"

"What’s important is that the toys we offer our kids, or encourage them to play with, aren’t only toys that endorse gender stereotypes," she adds. "So we shouldn’t only offer girls stereotypically 'feminine' toys like dolls or unicorn stuffies, and shouldn’t only offer boys 'masculine' toys like action figures or vehicles. We should be letting them play with a diversity of toys, including toys that challenge existing traditional gender stereotypes."

A gender-neutral toy aisle could also include a mix of toys that have been historically marketed toward boys or girls, Keder says.

What’s the point of all of this? It can help lessen the idea of “gendered interests or hobbies” from children’s minds, Keder says. “Boys might want to do crafts; girls might want superheroes,” he says. “It allows for the exploration of interests that might have otherwise been precluded because there has been this societal bias against it.”

Thea Gallagher, a Philadelphia-area clinical psychologist and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, tells Yahoo Life that all of this shines a light on how gendered life has become. “We’re told this lotion or product is for men or women, but it has a lot of the same ingredients,” she says. “The idea is to make toys be toys — and that kids can play with whatever they want.”

Some people on Twitter have argued that these are “just” toys. “As someone that works for a large retailer that [sells] toys, believe me when I say, kids do not care. They don’t see gender, they just see toys,” one person wrote. “This is pointless and I hope other states don’t push for this.” Another argued, “All toys are gender neutral, if you stop caring what other people think.”

But experts say it’s more than that. “Removing gender bias helps with children becoming accepting of diversity… and increases maturity,” Mayer says. “They’re all wonderful developmental tasks in learning how to become a healthy adult.”

Keder agrees. “Toys and their marketing influence kids,” he says. “They start funneling kids into boxes early on. The more we can get all kids STEM toys, open up all toys to them and help boys understand that it’s OK to have emotions, the more we let kids discover who they really are without feeling guilty about it.”

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