By Evelyn Gonzalez ‘18
As a society, we have a prescribed set of ideas about what gender should be and what it should look like, both physically and in terms of particular attributes like personality traits or interests. This has been detrimental to the growth of individuals, as it sets strict parameters around gender roles that have leaked into even the most basic aspects of our lives. We have a tendency in this case to view things through a gendered lens and to therefore place certain expectations onto the socially-constructed binary of male and female. The gender-schema that occurs in society requires that individuals rely on roles based on gender, which then become reinforced in the socialization of children.
A few months ago, Target released a statement about their movement away from gender-based signs: “Our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance. For example, in the kids’ Bedding area, signs will no longer feature suggestions for boys or girls, just kids. In the Toys aisles, we’ll also remove reference to gender, including the use of pink, blue, yellow or green paper on the back walls of our shelves. You’ll see these changes start to happen over the next few months.” While Target has received some backlash over this recent announcement, many Target shoppers are voicing their support. Target’s decision to move away from gendering products is important in that it’s a step in the right direction. It is significant in that its positive effects are likely to have a large impact in the way society views marketed products.
The toy aisles in shopping centers work as most marketing strategies do: by reinforcing the gender binary. Each aisle has products specifically chosen to appeal to a specific set of people.
The problem with working on a binary is that it often comes with unconscious discrimination and sexism. It relies on outdated stereotypes that play a role in confirming our gender biases such as the idea that young girls play with dolls because they’re more nurturing or that men are more aggressive and tend to play with cars and trucks. Preferences about toys often have nothing to do with gender, but rather with the ways in which social conditioning has affected interests. Think about all the times you’ve heard “that’s for boys” or “don’t use that, that’s for girls”. Little remarks like these have a big influence on whether children choose to align themselves with these products in the future. Gendered marketing of toys is especially harmful because itoften denies children the right to explore their own interests and inhibits learning opportunities. In the current gendered market it is difficult to find toys geared for young girls that involve engineering, math or construction.These young girls are not learning the skills early on that would allow them to prosper in the future. This lack of availability is having a deep real world impact in the careers that women feel are open to them. According to statistics provided by the National Girls Collaborative Project only 39% of chemists and material scientists, 17.2% of industrial engineers, and 7.2% of mechanical engineers are women.
Children are encouraged by adults and the larger society to work within the gender binary. They don’t often have the ability to choose what they would really like to play with, especially since society actively discourages non-adherenceto gender roles. There are very real consequences for children who don’t fit their interests to the gender binary, such as bullying, alienation or shaming. Toys, although fun, also help teach children very important skills. Let’s take, for example, trucks and building blocks marketed towards boys, and dolls and dress-up sets marketed towards girls. It is much easier for boys to learn spatial skills with the toys that they are given, and girls are given the opportunities to build their communication skills.
In order to help target these inequalities some companies are constructing toys that work outside of traditional gender roles. For example, Target has begun to sell Goldieblox which is designed especially for young girls to garner interest in engineering. By having items that are gender-neutral or even ones that help reduce the inequalities among the genders , children are given the freedom to choose what they like without fear of ramifications.
It’s important to recognize that we are often making these unconscious decisions and assumptions surrounding gender. This realization will allow us to be more conscious of the ways in which we view these social constructions. It will help remove us from our bias, and even aid in removingour supposed need for a constructed binary. Target’s decision to remove unnecessary gender-based signs is a step towards a society in which people of all genders are given the opportunity to explore their own individuality.