What have toys got to do with violence against women?

Liz Ely explains why, at Zero Tolerance, they see challenging gender stereotypes in early childhood as a crucial part of their work preventing violence against women.

At Zero Tolerance our mission is to prevent violence against women before it occurs, which can only be achieved by eliminating its root cause, gender inequality. This is not an easy task when gender inequality is present in so many aspects of our lives and in wider society.

The stereotypes present in toys, children’s media and clothes tell boys they must be tough, that expression of emotion is a weakness; they tell girls that they matter less, their stories are less important and that their appearance is their main asset. These stereotypes foster a culture where violence against women is allowed to flourish.

Justlikeachild_coverThis is why we developed Just Like A Child: Challenging Gender Stereotyping in the early years, a guide for childcare professionals to support them in challenging these stereotypes and providing an environment where girls and boys aren’t forced into categories which lead to inequality.

Gender training – start them young

Gender stereotypes affect and surround us all, so it is easy to be unaware of how we are treating children differently. It may feel like the most natural thing in the world to compliment a girl on how cute she looks in a new dress, but it is important to recognise what messages we are giving out about the importance of her physical appearance. Do we also tell her that we value what she thinks and does, as well as how she looks?

Putting boys into ‘the man box’

Similarly, it is important for us to address what messages we give to boys about expressing their emotions, and what it means to be a man.

In his excellent TEDTalk ‘A call to men’ American activist Tony Porter describes how he treated his son and daughter differently as young children. He speaks about how he would give his daughter all the time in the world to cry, but with his son he found himself acting in a different way.

“Kendall would come to me crying, it’s like as soon as I would hear him cry, a clock would go off. I would give the boy probably about 30 seconds, which means, by the time he got to me, I was already saying things like, ‘Why are you crying? Hold your head up. Look at me. Explain to me what’s wrong… I can’t understand you.’… I would find myself saying things like, ‘Just go in your room…  Sit down, get yourself together and come back and talk to me when you can talk to me like a man’.

“He was five years old.”

Porter goes on to talk about how the ‘man box’ (or the ‘collective socialisation of men’) supports gender inequality and violence against women, including some powerful stories from his own experience.

Toys – helping to build the man box

By segregating and stereotyping toys for children, we confirm and support the existence of a ‘man box’. By telling children that certain toys are not for boys (or girls) we also tell boys that girls and femininity are inferior. It’s accepted for girls to cross the line and play with ‘boy’ toys, but not the other way around. The implication that ‘boys’ things are superior is clear

ThemanboxChildren learn to police gender expression very early, and gender stereotypes in toys only encourage this. One childcare worker shared this story with us:

‘I work at an after school club for 5-9 year olds, this week one of the boys (let’s call him Bob) decided to sit at a table with some girls. One of the other boys started chanting at him ‘Bob is a girl, Bob is a girl’ in a really mocking way.’

If ‘girl’ is such a potent insult, what are we teaching boys about girls?

But isn’t that just nature?

Some people might suggest that stereotypes mimic natural behaviour; however evidence shows that stereotypes shape behaviour too. In her excellent book ‘Delusions of Gender’ Cordelia Fine gives examples of how reminding female students about negative stereotypes concerning women’s aptitude for maths and science actually led to lower test results than when they were not reminded of these stereotypes.

Experiments like this one (widely replicated) show the power of stereotypes on attainment in adult life, when the brain is more fully developed. Fine argues that in the early years, when the brain is more elastic, the potential impact of these stereotypes is even greater.

So what are we going to do about it?

Many stereotypes about men and women are so deeply ingrained we may not be aware of the ways in which the affect how we treat children. The Just Like A Child guide offers ways for practitioners to reflect on this and consider gender stereotyping within their childcare settings.

Play Fair

As well as supporting childcare workers to challenge stereotypes in daycare settings, we have joined together with White Ribbon Scotland to launch the Play Fair campaign, to support the aims of Let Toys Be Toys in Scotland. We provide opportunities for grassroots activists to meet others who wish to end gender stereotyping and take action in Scotland.

It may sometimes feel like an uphill struggle, but it is possible to change society. Let Toys Be Toys have already shown that it is possible to get toyshops to change their policies. If childcare workers, parents and campaigners join together to challenge stereotypes they will inevitably lose their power.

Liz Ely works for Zero Tolerance in Scotland as a development worker. Zero Tolerance aims to prevent violence against women in all its forms, and has a project working in the early years for which Liz is the lead.

Find out more about Play Fair via the Play Fair tumblr or follow @PlayFaircamp on twitter. Development worker Liz Ely is available to speak about this issue at events with staff or parents (Scotland only) and can be contacted directly on liz.ely@zerotolerance.org.uk


  1. Thank you for drawing these connections. I wrote a series of blog posts on this topic recently, and one of the key points I saw in the research was how stereotypes marketing & products separates boys & girls in real life. If we want people to get along with and understand each other as adults, we have to begin building those relationships early. As you so aptly point out, gender stereotypes toys & ads build walls between boys and girls when what we need is bridges!

  2. Cbaker

    I think that you are looking into this way too deeply. Retailers display their stores this way for ease of shopping. If this is the case, then do we need to start merchandising men’s clothes with ladies in case we want a thicker warmer jumper instead of a thinner more feminine one? Do we need to start putting men’s toiletries with ladies because actually some of the men’s smells are actually quite nice? No,because you would find the men wouldn’t shop that department. I’m not being sexist but just have a lot of years of experience in retail and know how people shop and how they don’t.
    Like it or not you will not change how kids develop and the reason for this is called nature. I have two dogs who have been brought up exactly the same way with the same toys. One is so obviously a boy, his character, his ways, the things he does, the way he plays with the same toys that my girl dog plays with so differently. It’s nature, it’s the way it is.
    You can put boys toys next to girls, you can change the packaging but they are not daft, they won’t want to know. As far as implying that girls are inferior because you are saying a toy is just for a girl is ridculous, I think how boys behave towards girls is mainly copied from their parent’s comments and behaviour and the influence of society not from walking into a toy shop with pink and blue headings.
    Leave the retailers alone and stop over complicating something that does not need to be. It is easier to shop this way, you are going to spend two hours in a toy shop instead of the one as your child shops every display in case they miss something. Good luck with that.

  3. Hi Cbaker, thanks for stopping by. Boys and girls are given many messages about what males and females are supposed to be like, so you’re right that toys are only part of the picture. But it’s certainly not ridiculous to suggest that ‘separate toys’ for girls implies inferiority. You say yourself that if men’s toiletries were displayed with women’s, “you would find the men wouldn’t shop that department” . Why is that then? Our culture has a very strong taboo for men being associated with anything that is ‘for women’. It doesn’t work the other way around. A girl who ‘trades up’ to boys toys or clothes may get negative comments or approval, but a boy who likes to play with dolls or dress up in sparkles risks far worse.

    Whatever ‘essential’ differences exist between boys and girls, they are massively exaggerated and reinforced by marketing, and yes, parenting and upbringing, with consequences which aren’t trivial.

    Left to their own devices, kids do play with a whole, wide range of toys, whatever your dogs choose to do.

    Shopping for toys in a store organised by theme and activity is no harder for shoppers, and no worse for retailers. There is no good reason to organise by gender, and every reason not to. I’m happy that many retailers agree with Let Toys Be Toys

  4. Lucia

    Excellent article – so thanks. Also had a look at the resource for childcare practitioners- some useful stuff here for parents too!!

    If we are to tackle gender equality we have think a little more about what we do and why we do it.

  5. Ian Jade

    This article doesn’t show a link with violence towards women. At all. If anything, it suggests that violence between men is more likely – and how exactly is that down to gendered toys?

    Differences do not inherently imply one group’s superiority over the other; that comes from outside.

    All in all, a terrible article. I expected better.

  6. A Chadwick

    ITV is creating a new series of ‘Thunderbirds’ starring the new version of Lady Penelope, who, I’m appalled to see, is immodestly revealing plunging cleavage. Her predecessor, a much more attractive puppet, would never have dressed like that, so chilly and impractical. Can we please protest to ITV?

  7. SistaSurvivorthriver (@dzongsar)

    Sher Hite is a Canadian social scientist. She was very thorough in exposing how patriarchy depends on male bonding to reinforce patriarchy – at preschool and at junior high school.

    As a former preschool owner/operator, I could see the change between a 2 year old and a 3 year old after he received his Christmas presents and came back from break with the super heroes waving in the air and sporting newfound superiority of aggression. Boys will be boys. Tut tut. And, the defiance towards me as a female teacher was flaunted in front of the other boys. Boys learn to disrespect females early.

    Zero Tolerance this is excellent work, absolutely spot on. Do read Sher Hite on the family. And, on women and the one on men good as well.

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