Could Toys That Ignore Gender Stereotypes At An Early Age Change Society as a Whole?

That’s a question that Nanda Sibol, Director of Brand Strategy in the San Francisco office of Anthem Worldwide poses in the article below titled, Pink or Blue Branding: Changing Gender Norms.

The three-to-six years toy guide from, supports this thought process, noting: “After the age of three, children begin to play actively with each other. Preschoolers and kindergartners are masters of make-believe. They like to act out grown-up roles and enjoy costumes and props to help them bring their imaginations to life.”

When I asked Ms. Sibol why this topic was of such strong interest to her, she responded:

“As a mom of two young girls, from the time they were babies to now as first graders, I have been surprised and disappointed in the limited options available from baby gear to apparel to toys. They both are always singing along to the video that they both like regardless of gender expectations. But there are exceptions, but it is still overwhelmingly “dolls for girls” and “trucks for boys.” As a mom, I don’t want to limit what my kids get exposed to, I’m looking for more choices—to let them experience, play and learn.” ~ Nanda Sibol

So, the question is, how will the toy industry respond? Will they listen to moms seeking greater opportunities and more choices for their children, or will they continue business as usual? According to The Wall Street Journal:

  • NPD Group estimates 2012 toy retail sales slid an estimated 0.6% to $16.5 billion
  • Growth strongest for building sets, arts and crafts, dolls

Further, the NPD Group suggests that toy companies must either sell more to each household or sell more households to move toy sales toward an upward trend.

Thank you Nanda, for submitting the thought provoking article below. Perhaps the toy industry could benefit from listening to more moms like you!


PINK OR BLUE BRANDING Changing Gender Norms

By Nanda Sibol

In today’s society we are seeing a shifting or blurring of adult gender roles, and recently we’re starting to see this play out in the land of children’s toys. While women take on more traditional male roles, such as becoming Fortune 500 CEO’s, and men take on more expected female roles, as seen in the growing population of stay-at-home dads, toy brands are challenging gender stereotypes for kids, catching up to what’s happening in the grown-up setting. Ironically for toys, which represent the world of play and imagination, there is generally a rigid and stark divide across gender lines—from types of toys, to colors and design, to merchandising and advertising.

Let’s look at three examples where toy marketers are confronting norms and going beyond simple pink or blue branding.



Making worldwide headlines this past holiday season, Top-Toy, a Swedish toy retailer, featured in its catalog girls playing with toy guns and boys playing with dolls. The move was in response to previous complaints that the company was not more gender neutral (in line with the country’s strong focus on equality). In addition to the advertising, in-store signage and store brand packaging will also move to reflect a gender-neutral stance. Admittedly, the images of kids playing in reversed roles seem somewhat staged and a token step, so it will be worth watching to see if the merchandising and packaging executions will be more authentic and demonstrate real change.



Also garnering much press attention was Hasbro and its Easy-Bake oven. Given how many men love cooking and the number of male celebrity chefs as role models, it’s somewhat surprising that the company currently only offers the oven in a “girly” purple version. Thanks to the efforts of McKenna Pope, a teenager who petitioned Hasbro to offer a toy design that would appeal to boys—namely her younger brother—the company will release a new black and silver model later this year. Intentionally or not, with the purple version, Hasbro was bolstering stereotypes that ovens are for girls and not for boys. From this insight, it will be interesting to see if the company reviews its entire product portfolio to see if it can break from convention and broaden its consumer base, offering more choices that ultimately may increase its market share.



In addition to building a business, Debbie Sterling creator of GoldieBlox is on a mission to affect society at large. She holds a degree in engineering and is looking to change the lopsided statistic that 90 percent of engineers are men. She, too, recognizes that gender norms are defined at an early age. “If we want more female engineers, we need to open their minds to engineering at a young age.” With that in mind, she purposely focused on developing a toy for girls. While on the surface GoldieBlox seems to fit gender norms with pastel colors, curved shapes, and soft materials, at its core it is teaching girls about basic engineering principles. The toy is part of an engaging story where problems are solved by constructing different devices. To some the toy may seem to embrace and reinforce many stereotypes, but similar to the earlier example that most young boys would not want to play with a “girly” oven, so too, most (not all) young girls would not want to play with a “boyish” construction set. The importance of this toy is not the outer trappings that may seem “girly,” but that it exposes little girls to other options and expands their perspective.

While the examples above focus on toys, the learnings can be applied more broadly. For any product or service, the consumer target is one of the first marketing questions to be answered. Perhaps that question should be reframed—should a product be designed and marketed to a specific gender, should it be gender-neutral, or should two versions be launched, one for each gender? Once that decision is made, marketers should consider stereotypes and norms and how they may or may not play into our shifting modern society. In answering that question, there is a real opportunity for marketers to help shape and evolve society—to showcase possibilities and give consumers, from an early age to adulthood, more choice in how they live their lives.

Nanda Sibol is Director, Brand Strategy in the San Francisco office of Anthem Worldwide, part of the brand development division of Schawk, Inc.


What are your thoughts? Could toys help blur the line of gender roles?

Stephanie Holland is President and Executive Creative Director for Holland + Holland Advertising. Working in an industry that is dominated by men, she is one of only 3% of the female creative directors in the country. Stephanie works mostly with male advertisers, helping them successfully market to women. Subscribe to She-conomy by Email

4 Responses to “Could Toys That Ignore Gender Stereotypes At An Early Age Change Society as a Whole?”

  1. […] Could Toys That Ignore Gender Stereotypes At An Early Age Change Society as a Whole? […]

  2. Your interest in what I understand has been a long-disproven line of research seems odd for a website devoted to educating the marketing industry about how the Female consumer feels, thinks, and buys differently from her male counterparts. Considering the widespread personal and societal turmoil in the wake of the gender identity blurring introduced in the 60s I would think you’d be more interested in approaches to early childhood development that would reinforce the gender identities made obvious by our biology. It should be obvious to anyone other than an ideologically-driven academic.

  3. in the UK society is changing, gay rights are at the fore and seem to be adopted amongst the 20 plus year olds

  4. If the NPD Group suggests that toy companies either sell more products to each household or sell more households to remedy the slide in toy retail sales in 2012, then perhaps investing in a more gender-neutral product offerings would be beneficial, both fiscally and socially. Toys are a very big part of the imaginary learning space in which girls and boys learn and reinforce key lessons about their expected roles in society. Research suggests that, aside from the secondary consequences of learning such socially ingrained gender norms at an early age (i.e. flagging rates of female participation in the workforce, conceptions of male aggression translating to domestic and sexual violence, etc.), the idea of fixed roles according to gender can negatively affect an individual’s health outcomes over the course of a lifetime. Will Courtenay poses a theory of gender and health in “Constructions of masculinity and their influence on men’s well-being” (2000). He argues that men’s socialization to equate illness with weakness, disregard pain and discomfort, and minimize reliance on others leads to underreporting illness and higher morbidity rates than women. The role of toys in socializing children – giving a boy a tool kit or trucks and giving a girl stuffed animals and dolls – reinforces expectations for expressing emotion, pain, how to be nurturing or strong, etc. For example, a girl who plays teacher, mother, and chef with baby dolls or a cooking set learns to expect to fulfill those multiple roles later on in her life. However, while women often juggle demanding and contradictory social roles (i.e. domestic work and family care combined with paid work), they have more freedom to deviate from traditional roles. Courtenay points out that multiple roles among women are often associated with better health because of their greater propensity to acknowledge symptoms and use health care services. At the same time, though, women report working longer hours in multiple spheres and often reduce self-care and self-seeking in response.

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