Nova Scotia

The gender divide: gendered marketing of boys' and girls' toys on the rise, professor says

Parents gearing up for the holiday season might be noticing a two-tone landscape when they walk into the toy store; and that division of toys into blue and pink isn’t an accident, says a Dalhousie researcher.

Research suggests grouping toys by gender stereotypes is increasing

The marketing of toys based on gender seems to have increase over the past two decades, says a Halifax sociology professor.

Parents gearing up for the holiday season might notice a two-tone landscape when they walk into the toy store, and that division of toys into blue and pink isn't an accident, says a researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Fiona Martin, a professor of sociology and social anthropology, said the gendered marketing of toys using features such as colour and function — for example, cosmetics and dolls for girls; weapons and action figures for boys —  seems to be intensifying.

"Research suggests that over the last 15 years, the sort of gendered segmentation in marketing has become particularly intense," she said.

One step forward, two steps back

Martin told CBC's Information Morning that it hasn't always been this way. 

In the 1970s, the Sears catalogue — at the time a go-to source for Christmas presents — displayed an effort to limit gendered marketing.

"There seemed to be kind of a conscious effort to market construction toys to girls and domestic toys to boys, and the hypothesis is that this was in the wake of the second-wave feminist movement," she said. 

"There was a sense ... that there was going to be little appetite for sort of stereotypically gendered toys."

A Lego ad from 1981.

But a gradual shift toward gendered marketing intensified in the 1990s when princess-themed toys appeared and the idea of the gender-appropriate toy flourished in earnest.

Martin said this trend doesn't necessarily reflect the desires of consumers, but rather a case of market segmentation whereby a broad consumer base is split into smaller groups based on some shared trait.

"To try and most effectively market toys to different groups ... they've decided to use gender as the key way to divide the market." 

Kids being taught about gender diversity

This segmentation is ironic, said Martin, because broadly speaking, people are more tolerant of gender diversity than ever. 

"Schools are taking a really proactive role in that regard, there's a lot of emphasis on teaching kids about gender diversity, a lot of acceptance of nonconforming gender behaviour."

Martin said children are naturally open to diversity and parents can encourage their children to question gender boundaries. They can also offer their children gender-neutral toys such as musical instruments, crafts and sporting goods.

Closing young minds

By offering dolls to girls and action figures to boys, Martin said there's a risk that toys designed to help children exercise their imaginations could close minds more than they open them.

"You're setting girls up to be very focused on their appearance and caring for others, and boys to be focused on ... action and sort of aggressive behaviour."

With files from CBC's Information Morning