“At the Lego Group we know we have a role to play in putting this right, and this campaign is one of several initiatives we are putting in place to raise awareness of the issue and ensure we make Lego play as inclusive as possible. All children should be able to reach their true creative potential.”
In conjunction with the announcement, Lego released the findings of a global survey it commissioned on gender bias. Conducted by the Geena Davis Institute, the survey asked nearly 7000 parents and kids in China, the Czech Republic, Japan, Poland, Russia, the UK and the US, questions such as whether it’s OK for girls to play football and boys to practice ballet. While 82 per cent of girls said it was, only 71 per cent of boys agreed.
Parents from the survey were nearly five times as likely to encourage girls to engage in dance and dress-up activities than boys. Conversely, they were almost four times as likely to encourage boys to engage in program games and sports than girls, and over twice as likely to do so with coding toys.
Parents were also more likely to encourage their sons to play with Lego bricks than their daughters. After completing an implicit bias assessment, 76 per cent said they would recommend Lego to a son versus 24 per cent who would recommend it to a daughter.
Blue and pink divide
Lego isn’t the first retailer to try to downplay gender in its marketing to kids. In recent years, several major retailers have stopped using gender-based signs in stores, which reinforce the idea that certain products are for boys and others are for girls.
British department store John Lewis removed gender-based signs and replaced the labels on its own brand of children’s clothing with tags that read ‘boys and girls’ or ‘girls and boys’ in 2016. And American big box retailer Target removed gender-based signs in 2015, after a tweet showing a sign for ‘building sets’ and ‘girls’ building sets’ went viral.
But many retailers continue to separate products into girls’ and boys’ sections, saying it makes stores easier for customers to navigate. And you only have to look at the products actually on the shelf to see that gender stereotypes remain deeply embedded in toys, clothes and other items made for kids.
“Society has been engaged in gender stereotyping for a long time. We barely blink an eye when we ask in-store for girls’ toys and when we are subsequently told to ‘head to the section which has lots of pink and lots of dolls’,” Jana Bowden, a consumer psychology expert at Macquarie University Business School, told Inside Retail.
“There’s been a pervasive assumption that consumers buy gendered toys and that there’s a blue and pink divide. This has been reflected and reinforced and internalised in store layout and design. It’s an inculcated traditional perception of consumption, but times are changing.”
A new California law will require retailers with over 500 employees to offer a “reasonable” amount of kids products in a gender-neutral section in stores by 2024, or face fines of $500 per store. And it could be just the beginning, as societal attitudes towards gender and gender norms continue to change.
“Generation Alpha born — between 2010 and 2024 to millennial parents — are interested in sustainability, social equality, but also importantly activism. They’re embracing a non-binary existence and they’re increasing guided by interest — just look at the make-up category and its various influencers for the scale of diversity,” Bowden said.
“Their cultural norms are very different to other older generations. Parents of these kids are socially conscious and they want to see and hear diverse voices and portrayals in their children’s products.”
Bowden expects more brands and retailers to move away from gender-based marketing in an effort to connect with these consumers: “Whilst change has been slow to date, the shift will be likely to quicken as the likes of Gen Alpha tear up binary norms and as parental socialisation approaches shift in parallel.”
The right thing to do
Nigel Hickey, co-founder and group managing director of Jooc’d, a platform for LGBTQIA+ influencers, believes companies should start using more gender-neutral marketing, if they aren’t already doing so.
“If advertising and marketing mirror culture, gender-neutral marketing is where it’s at, and should already be part of the marketing mix,” Hickey told Inside Retail. “If not today, brands and retailers should be leaning in tomorrow as this is an important consideration for any communications or marketing strategy.”
A good example of this is Allkinds, a personal care brand for kids that deliberately avoids marketing its products to any one gender.
“We don’t divide our stores into a girls’ and a boys’ section; we leave it up to kids to choose. There’s something for everyone, and we encourage all to have fun finding their favourites,” Allkinds’ general manager Paula Gorman told Inside Retail at the opening of the brand’s first store in Sydney in May.
“From what we are seeing in our stores, kids are absolutely loving the experience of deciding for themselves.”
But while there may be commercial reasons for brands and retailers to avoid gender stereotypes in their products and marketing, Hickey believes it’s also the right thing to do, especially when it comes to kids.
“Learning through play is one of the most important ways children learn and develop,” he said. “Imagine a four-year-old girl who holds the key to the next scientific break-through, never reaching her potential because ‘scientists are boys’, or a six-year-old boy who is the Picasso of the next generation, never painting because ‘painting is for girls’. Lego is overcoming these gender norms. More brands need to get on board with this.”