Why it Matters

Balanced play for girls and boys

Why does gender-stereotyped toy marketing matter?

  • Kids should decide for themselves what they think is fun. Why put these limits on play?
  • Play matters. Children need a wide range of play to develop different skills.
  • Marketing matters. Directing consumers in this way is restricting children’s play.
  • The real world  has moved on. These gender stereotypes are tired and out of date.

It’s easy for retailers to make a positive difference, and they should benefit too.

Play matters

Play is crucial to how children develop and learn about the world. In education it’s recognised that children need access to a range of toys and play experiences.  Toys focused on action, construction and technology hone spatial skills, foster problem solving and encourage children to be active.  Toys focused on role play and small-scale theatre allow them to practise social skills. Arts & crafts are good for fine motor skills and perseverance. Read more about toys and learning.

Boys and girls need the chance to develop in all these areas, but many stores divide toys into separate boys’ and girls’ sections. Action construction and technology toys are predominantly marketed to boys while social role play and arts and crafts toys are predominantly marketed to girls. Both boys and girls miss out this way.

Marketing matters

How toys are labelled and displayed affects consumers’ buying habits. Many people feel uncomfortable buying a boy a pink toy or a girl a toy labelled as ‘for boys’.

Other buyers may simply be unaware of the restricted choices they are offered. They may not notice that science kits and construction toys are missing from the “girls” section, or art & crafts and kitchen toys from the “boys”. If they’re never offered the chance, a child may never find out if they enjoy a certain toy or style of play.

And children are taking in these messages about what girls and boys are ‘supposed to like’.  They are looking for patterns and social rules – they understand the gender rule ‘This is for boys and that is for girls,’ in the same way as other sorts of social rules, like ‘Don’t hit”.  These rigid boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying.


Children don’t pop out of the womb with expectations about their future careers, or beliefs about what their work is worth, but the stereotypes we see in toy marketing connect with the inequalities we see in adult life. By early primary age, children already have very clear ideas about the jobs that are suitable for boys and girls; ideas that are very hard to shake later on.

Themes of glamour and beauty in toys and playthings directed at even the youngest girls tips over into a worrying emphasis on outward appearance. Stereotyped attitudes about boys are equally harmful. The constant assumption reinforced in toy advertising and packaging that boys are inevitably rough, dirty, rowdy, interested only in action and violence tells calmer, more sensitive or more creative boys that they’re getting this whole ‘boy’ thing a bit wrong, and feeds low expectations of boys that undermine their performance at school.

It’s easy for retailers to make a positive difference, and they should benefit too

We are not asking retailers to change the toys they sell, but to organise toys by theme and function rather than gender.  There’s no need for ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ aisles: take down the pink and blue signs in stores and on packaging, and instead let toys be toys. Is a doll really harder to find marked ‘dolls’?

It’s an easy change to make. See our before and after gallery to see how stores have changed.

Plenty of UK retailers sell toys, books, bikes and more items for children without signposting to girls or boys.  Let Toys Be Toys recognises shops with good practice with a Toymark award for good practice. Over 50 retailers have now been awarded across the UK; take a look at our directory of Toymark awarded retailers.  Shoppers and retailers themselves can also nominate a store for the Toymark.

It’s a win-win: we’re talking about retailers offering consumers more, not less.



  1. none

    Hi there, on the whole, I agree with the premise of what you are proposing, however, I feel uncomfortable with your notion in the “stereotypes” section above, where you state…
    “Role play toys sometimes seem decades behind the real world, reflecting outdated stereotypes; doctor kits for boys, nurse kits for girls, DIY for boys and cooking and cleaning for girls girls, aggression for boys, princessy glamour for girls… In the 21st century things have moved on.” – Really? have they moved on? Even if I just go to the cinema I can see that they haven’t. It’s a flawed persepective that you hold. “The real world has moved on” you say, but the majority of the people buying the toys, spending, getting themselves in to debt for the sake of their children’s ‘happiness’ are the ‘real world’ and they may still prefer to buy gender specific items for their child, lest we end up enforcing a rule that male and female babies must be clothed in ‘gender-neutral’ clothing. SO why dont you ‘Let toys be toys’ and stop interfering in the way people sell their goods and the way people bring up their children. It’s the freedom of the liberal capitalist that brings such affluence you have to start meddling in others affairs. Men and Women are equal, but they sure are different, celebrate the difference, don’t deny it and smudge it out completely. what a bland world that would be.

    • Mary Dooley

      Sums up my feelings exactly! Men and women are not the same, toymakers are just catering to that difference. Thanks for such a great comment!

      • The differences between men and women (or boys and girls) are besides the point. It is still not appropriate to tell children what their interests should be.

        IF there is a ‘natural’ difference between the play of boys and girls then there’s no need to reinforce it with signs. I really don’t think that my son’s masculinity is so fragile that marketing toys in an inclusive way will ‘smudge it out’!

      • lisa

        Men and women were never the same and yet we didn’t have such gender defined differences in toys. I think I saw the big Barbie/Princess/Pink onslaught happening around the millennium onwards? ‘Toymakers’ make less money if a boy passes his bike onto his younger sister.

    • SDek

      Who is saying that the goals of “Let Toys be Toys” has anything to do with not celebrating differences? However, isn’t the point to celebrate the differences simply amongst people, period? \

  2. The world has moved on in many ways. It’s estimated that by 2017, women doctors will be in the majority, compared with 1960 when they comprised only 24 per cent of medical school intake. When I see so many men pushing pushchairs why does anyone think a toy buggy is only for girls?

    Organising toys by genre not gender has no disadvantage. Parents and children are freer to choose what they want without restricting gender labels, and shoppers can still find a dolly in the section marked ‘dolls’. Kids shouldn’t feel that certain toys are out of bounds for them.

  3. Connie

    Yes, men and women are equal and yes, there are differences but, problems occur when gender is polarised in this way because there is so many different forms of gender in between the extreme masculin and the exyreme feminine: most people do not fit into these polarised categories of male and female (the stereotypes). Some girls like blue, some boys like fashion, some girls like physics, some boys like cars and sewing and, so on. For some people who do not meet the criteria of the polarised ideal this can lead to feelings of confusion, inadequacy and isolation. The more we reinforce these extreme gender differences the more we overlook or marginalise all the people “in-between” and, put pressure on them to conform to stereotypes when this may not be their true persuasion.

  4. femalescientist

    “SO why dont you ‘Let toys be toys’ and stop interfering in the way people sell their goods and the way people bring up their children.”


    • Unless we lock ourselves in a box, we are all ‘interfering’ with one another all the time. I’d like shops, marketers, advertisers and, yes, other parents to stop ‘interfering’ with my children’s freedom by telling them that certain toys (or activities or behaviour) are appropriate for girls and others for boys.

      Raising questions and talking about the implications of our actions is part of a free and democratic society. No ‘interference’ by that definition would mean no debate and no freedom of speech.

  5. Jess, if a father buys one daughter lots of toys based on sports, football, cricket and DIY and chemical sets. Then buy the next daughter dolls, dresses my little ponies. What do you think the outcome is? How does it differ? One turned out to be board level finance director of multi national engineering company, the other of the same in Marketing of a brewing company again multi national. The point i am making is that parents tend to know there kids and buy them the things they like. As you can imagine these aren’t young kids I mention parents getting appropriate gifts for their kids is just what real parents do. They just don’t notice the blue or pink, thats for those who have a shallow life.

    • Choosing gifts according to a child’s individual interests, rather than by gender, is precisely what the campaign is about.

      If marketing didn’t influence people, marketers wouldn’t bother with it. It’s powerful, and it affects all of us, and it affects children when they’re too young to understand the difference between promotional messages and factual information.

  6. Misty

    It’s interesting that we talk like we need to change things since “we’ve moved on”. But I remember toys being much less polarized by gender than they are now. There were traditional girl toys and some toys more thought of as boys toys but I dont remember them being divided. The “girl toy aisle” didn’t exist but the doll sections were filled with many colors. They didn’t look like they were drenched in pepto bismal. Toys marketed to girls weren’t all pink. Not even mostly. And there were plenty of toys that had no gender. What gender was the fisher price pull toys, Ferris wheel, or airport? The play phone didn’t come in a boy version and a girl version. There was just one.

    We’ve gone WAY backwards in my opinion.

  7. I really think that this is political correctness gone crazy! The article shared below explores the psychology behind why it really does not matter.


  8. Liz

    Whilst I can see both sides to this argument, I want to share an observation from the school I work in. We work very hard to ensure everything is for everyone, but noticed that reception age girls were rarely choosing Lego. We supplemented our Lego with pink and purple bricks mixed in and hey presto, it is now played with by everyone. The power of color!

    • That’s fascinating. Personally I’d see that as troubling evidence that even by reception age, some girls have already got the idea that if it isn’t pink/purple, it isn’t for them. This isn’t really very surprising – a glance at the girls’ clothing aisle, or a tally of the clothes worn by young girls will quickly show that girls seem rarely to be allowed out without being pink-branded.

      This is a great example of the power of colour bringing everyone to the same lego, rather than creating a separate ‘pink table’, the tack that Lego themselves, have, sadly taken.

  9. Daisy

    What the counter-arguments are missing is that none of us are the free agents we wish to be and our children do not choose freely any more than their parents do. Parents can attempt to help their children choose more freely but there are strong additional socialising forces in the form of the media and very importantly our peers impacting on all of us all of the time. Studies show and I think most parents also note that children are already aware of gender stereotypes by 2 years and will generally wish to conform to what is expected from them as their gender. So will their parents not surprisingly.
    What is most disappointing is that within the general framework of women taking a broader role our society and economy and starting to break down some of the barriers for women entering certain professions, we have seen a significant increase of genderisation of toys. This has occurred particularly through colour so that, as the above observation about lego indicates, girls are guided towards pink toys and do not see lego which used to be a gender neutral toy as pertaining to them unless it is pink. Furthermore the pink coding relates to a narrower selection of toys that link primarily to appearance and housework.
    Those of us who wish not to see rows of pink fluffy toys in a ‘girls toy aisle’ are not the ones interfering. We are just trying to point out the increasing level of interference from the media and toy manufacturers in our children’s choices. It takes a particularly strong child to ignore the range of pressures of media and peers and it also suppresses any natural curiosity in trying out other toys. And why is it necessary ? Presumably the only reason is that it sells more toys. We as parents should attempt to resist this increased pressure on our children.

  10. Call me Kaity

    Once, I was wearing pair of shoes “for boys”, and my friends pointed out that they have other friends or brothers that have the same pair. “Dude, why are you wearing boys’ shoes?” “My brother has the same shoes.” “There’s a guy in an older grade that’s in my club. He wears the same exact shoes.”
    I’m like ,”Really?”

    • lisa

      ‘some girls have already got the idea that if it isn’t pink/purple, it isn’t for them. ‘ You will still hear ‘intelligent’ adults say ‘Girls just like pink’. Really? 100 years ago, blue was seen as the ‘girls colour’ and thus sold. Has children’s biology changed so that they now are born liking pink? It is usually men who appear to dismiss this idea, not having any problem with most ‘girls toys’ being associated with glamour or cooking. I can see why that may not seem like a problem to some. Parents were just as ‘real’ or loving of their children 30/40 years ago and then, toys were not so polarised. There are now record numbers of children with gender identity crisis. How would any sane kid not have a gender identity crisis, when they are presented with such polarised limits? Similar to ‘Call me Katy’s story above, I heard a young girl refer to tracksuit bottoms as ‘boy trousers’ the other day. A new one for me to hear. So if it’s not unhealthily tight (e.g. leggings) and preferably pink, it’s for a boy! Business loves it of course. Create a world of princesses and they will keep spending to maintain their princess appearance and story for the rest of their lives.

  11. MJP

    Ive recently been doing a district writing assessment and the project i picked was on gender stereotypes and how they affect our lives. this site really helped with the gender stereotypes in marketing

  12. Nice post. Toys are building blocks for child’s development. So they should be given proper choice about what they like at different stage of life. Toys help them understand their hobbies & interests. So parents should be very careful while buying toys for their kids. Wrong toy may lead child to wrong direction and moreover child might not be able to develop or discover their proper passion.

  13. Jayne

    My parents in law have just bought a plastic fake baby doll for my daughter. Their other granddaughter got one too when she was a toddler. Their grandson, however, has never been given a doll baby to play with. Why? Because these dolls in their pink clothes and pink boxes are still considered girls’ toys. Because society still hangs on to the tired old notion that only women look after abs care for babies. This campaign is a god send and I cannot understand how anyone would object to it. Incidentally the grandson was given a truck when his twin sister got the doll. Why not a truck or a doll each?!

  14. Michael Khouri

    As a teacher, I appreciate the value that toys can have in educating and developing our children. As a parent, i want the best for both my daughters. One is scientifically minded and pursuing a career in the geology field. The other is creative and wants to be a chef. Both were raised on a variety of toys and games. They both had Lego and both had dolls. My wife and I interacted equally with them in both areas (yes as a father I had tea parties and also pretend construction projects). I taught my children to ignore the narrow boxes and the labels that society tried to categorize everyone in. Even some politically correct people try create a label for everyone so that all groups are represented, but it is still a label. What about those of us that enjoy multiple categories of toys? One of the proudest moments I had was when I got through to my younger child and she stopped allowing herself to be influenced by the Tweenie television show shallow minded fashion and boy crazy characters who equated happiness with multiple fluffy pink and glittery objects. The day my daughter’s personal slogan changed to SITNC (Smart is the new cool). I played with both Lego and Fisher Price Little People and turned out just fine. If we stop making children feel abnormal for crossing the categories, they will turn out just fine too.

  15. Natty

    If this matters to you SO much, why don’t you fund raise for you OWN toy retailer and do exactly what you want. Then see the results. Perhaps your approach will be exactly what the parents and kids want and you’ll make money. Why are you creating a campaign for something that is controlled by the free market. Businesses do what sells and this obviously sells. Why are you trying to force businesses to do something you disagree with? Also, this campaign seriously undermines the opinions of the parents. Why not do a campaign to educate parents who are the customers, rather then attacking the toy shops. If the grand plan is to venture into legislation then I am STRONGLY against it. More nanny state, pointless laws, where you’ll turn into a NGO who gets paid TAX PAYER money to ‘advise’ the government about this utterly minuscule issue. Ridiculous.

    • HI Natty, thanks for stopping by. We aren’t calling for legislation, and all of us involved in the campaign work on it in our own time. We’re not attacking toy shops, our campaign asks them to simply organise stores in a way that allows children to choose their interests freely for themselves. Parents are equally free to choose a doll or a truck in a section labelled ‘dolls’ or ‘vehicles’ as they are if they were labelled ‘girls’ or ‘boys’. We’re all about more choice, not less.

      There is clearly more money to be made by persuading families that boys and girls need different, colour coded toys. Businesses are there to make money – we want to point out that this shouldn’t be at the expense of children’s wellbeing by making them feel that certain interests are ‘wrong’ or off-limits for boys or girls, or legitimising bullying.

  16. Southern belle? More like Texas tough!

    I love all of the “men and women are equal but always different” comments. I’m a straight conservative married woman who played with cars, legos and dinosaurs as a child. I played in the mud and most of my friends were boys until they decided that girls had cooties and kicked me out of their group. Why didn’t I “naturally” want to play with boring baby dolls and pretend kitchens? Why didn’t I “naturally” want to play barbies and dress up with the other girls? Maybe all human beings have unique personalities? What a thought…

  17. Time to change

    Toys are toys and colours are colours!! I don’t see why in this day age that they need to be gender specific with these things. I have a 5 Yr old boy who loves pink, purple, sparkles and dolls. He takes a lot of stick for this because its assumed these are “girls things”. We have to realise that we are more open these days and want our children to express themselves. Due to maketing there are still stereotypes. I believe if we change how we market things for children then children will educate their parents. This will then spread and the children that don’t fit into the stereotypical box will not be made to feel different. Our children are our future and money will still be made no matter what!

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