The consumerist side of sexism

sign showing different hair cut prices for women and men
Advertising fail, Theerin / CC BY 2.0

Did you know that it can cost twice as much to get an article of clothing dry cleaned if it is called a blouse as opposed to a shirt? Or that a woman typically pays 25% more for a basic haircut than a man does for the same cut?

But sexism in the consumer world starts much earlier than with dry cleaning and adult haircuts, and its repercussions go far beyond the price of products.

Let’s look at the marketing of children’s clothes and toys. Elizabeth Sweet, a professor at University of California, Davis, wrote in a 2016 article in the New York Times that toys are more gendered now than at any time in the 20th century. She notes: “In the 1975 Sears catalog, for example, toys came in many hues, and science kits and kitchen sets showed boys and girls working together.”

Departmentalizing boys and girls

Terry O’Reilly explored the issue of sexism in marketing in two recent episodes of Under the Influence on CBC radio. He traced the beginnings of gender segregation of children’s toys and both children’s and adults’ clothes to the development of department stores. Department stores needed departments; the more the better. Why have a single clothing department if you can have separate departments for women and for men? Why have one aisle of toys when you can have two big signs, one in pink announcing “Girls’ Toy Department” and one in blue for the boys’ toys.

Of course, from the advertisers’ and retailers’ perspective, this makes perfect sense. If girls’ clothes and toys have to be different from boys, parents can’t just pass toys and clothes on from their daughter to their son – they have to go back to the store and buy more.

The same applies to products for adults: market hair salons for women as providing a different service than barber shops for men and the retailer can charge a premium. Take the same ingredients that appear in a bottle of shampoo and put them in a feminized bottle, and the company can charge more – up to 48% more.

God says!

In recent years, some retailers have moved away from these distinctions in their toy departments but, according to O’Reilly, when Target announced its intention to de-gender its children’s toy and clothing departments in 2015, some customers were unhappy. One of those unhappy customers was Reverend Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, who decried this move as a slap in the face to American families: “They’re not gender neutral children. These are boys and girls, the way God made them.”

We can only assume that, at least in Graham’s world, God also decreed that girls shall wear pink and play with Easy Bake ovens and boys shall wear blue and play with guns and trucks.

The use of gender to market products ranging from children’s toys to adult medication is everywhere, and it often comes with a different price tag. Identical scooters in a large toy store chain are available in red at a price of $24.99 and in pink at a price of $49.99. The laxative Dulcolax is available in green packaging or packaged in pink and called Dulcolax Pink – guess who that is for? – in which case it costs 11% more. Pink earplugs cost 20 cents a package more than blue ones. Pink Bic pens, in every way but colour identical to blue Bic pens cost more.

In Canada, where there are no laws against gender-based pricing (as there are in some American states), toys marketed to girls cost on average 55% more than toys marketed to boys;  girls’ clothing costs about 26% more than does boys’, and women’s clothing costs a whopping 40% more than men’s).

From toys to career choices

But the problem goes much deeper than our pocketbooks. According to Elizabeth Sweet, gender stereotypes in toys affect children’s task performance, which in turns shapes their aspirations and confidence levels.

In other words, when girls see their toy/play choices limited to domestic tasks or subordinate career possibilities and boys see theirs as limited to aggressive or physically active options, it affects both in negative ways. Boys may feel precluded from considering themselves as nurturers or from thinking about careers in the so-called caring professions. Girls may not think that physical activity is appropriate for them and may only consider inferior career options.

And what about those children who don’t see themselves as particularly girls or boys? They are really left out in the cold by gendered approaches to marketing of toys and clothes.

If we are to see meaningful change, according to Sweet, toy companies will have to

“think outside the gender box and beyond the limiting colors that signify gender. Instead of more pink weapons and building sets, toys should be made using a full spectrum of colors and with diverse themes, and they should be marketed to both boys and girls.”

Girls could still choose to play with dolls and boys could still play with trucks, but all children – let’s get beyond the binary definition of gender while we are at it– would have options rather than limitations in their toy selections and in the life choices that flow from those.

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