It is holiday shopping season, and retail shops are presenting kids’ toys in pink for girls and blue for boys. In fact, shopping goods are displayed in gendered categories from baby diapers to shampoo to ankle supports. This pink/blue divide was put into place primarily by manufacturers and marketers since the 1950s, and it is causing harm to individuals and to society in ways that might not, at first, be obvious.
The problem with pink and blue
The pink/blue divide reinforces gender stereotypes by sending messages about what is acceptable for girls and boys to wear, to do and to be. Additionally, the “pink tax” drains thousands of dollars from the pockets of women, annually. This “pink tax” joins with other forms of gender inequality, such as the “pay gap,” to put women at a disadvantage in the marketplace. The pink/blue divide is integrated with broad systems of gendered domination and oppression. Manufacturers, retailers and marketers profit from those systems, while, at the same time, helping to hold them into place.
The vast majority of girls’ toys revolve around some kind of princess theme. More “robust” characters, such as pirates, tend to be found with the boys’ toys. This divide represents a system of manufacturing, marketing and retailing of consumer products based on gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes are harmful to the mental health of children, and parents are concerned. Sixty percent of parents worry about the effect of gender stereotypes on their children, and understandably so.
The harm done by gender stereotypes
Gender stereotypes are harmful in the way that they affect body image and self-esteem. Messages that people’s bodies should look a certain way can undermine children’s self-image well into adulthood. Such ideas can also lead to bullying, discrimination and violence. Gender stereotypes contribute to stunted emotional development among boys who believe they are not allowed to show vulnerability. It is healthy for girls and boys to play together, and gender stereotyping unnecessarily drives them apart. Finally, children’s imagination should not be limited to the manufactured confines of pink and blue. Girl brains and boy brains aren’t that different. Most perceived differences are the result of social conditioning. Consider math, for instance.
Girl brains and boy brains on math
A study of 103 children age 3–10 found that differences in brain activity between girls and boys doing math were indistinguishable. Yet, fewer women than men enter the STEM fields of math, engineering and science in college. The reason for this, the researchers suggest, is because of the messages that girls and boys receive about what fields of study are expected for them. Additionally, it can be difficult for girls and women to break into professional arenas that have been historically dominated by men. Gender stereotyping might begin with pink and blue toys for children but it goes on to define what careers and fields of study are perceived as suitable for girls and boys.
The history of pink and blue
In British North America, the children of European descendants wore white, frilly clothes. Bright colors were introduced in the mid-1800s. At that time, pink was thought to be a strong color and suitable for boys, although it was fine for girls to wear pink, too. As late as the 1920s, pink was assigned as a boys’ color for clothing. In the 1940s, clothing manufacturers standardized pink for girls’ clothing, and this became normalized for the baby-boomer generation. Afterward, manufacturers and retailers began charging more for those pink items.
The pink/blue divide exploits and punishes women in the marketplace. Women pay higher costs for clothing and cosmetic items, such as jeans and shampoo, along with everyday services, like haircuts and dry cleaning. Among children’s toys, girls’ toys cost more than boys.’ Higher prices for identical items, based on gender, cost women about $2,135 per year.
36 states do not consider tampons “essential,” and, therefore, tampons are not exempt from sales tax in those states. Additionally, homeless students, along with other students living in poverty, need tampons provided for them at school. In the absence of such provision, some children resort to old socks and newspapers. Other students miss school during their periods, if they don’t have tampons. Likewise, women in prisons struggle for access to tampons and are sometimes reduced to begging them from guards. In recent years, numerous states have repealed their “tampon tax” or have legislation in the works that attempts to do so. New York, along with a few other states, is providing tampons for girls in grades 6–12. Menstruation should not be an experience of exploitation and abuse.
Pink transit tax
In New York City, women pay $26–50 more than men for transportation costs, mainly for safety reasons. If women are accompanied by children, they will pay about $100 more per month than men. The vast majority of transit users who are also caregivers happen to be women, as well. This added cost causes lower-income women to feel less safe in public, and it also restricts them from opportunities.
Pink taxes force women to pay more for the products they need while, at the same time, women are earning less than men for doing the same work. On average, women make 80.5 cents for each dollar earned by men for doing the same job. For women of color, the gap is worse. Unpaid maternity leave can be financially devastating for women, while mothers are criticized for having careers. Women are charged higher interest rates than men for mortgage loans, regardless of their consistently higher credit ratings. Like the pink tax, the pay gap contributes to gender inequality by keeping women economically disadvantaged.
What we can do about it
Be aware of gender stereotyping when it occurs. Teach children about bias and stereotypes, at a young age. Change the conversation from the binary masculine/feminine to one that recognizes the value of both qualities. Act to break down gender stereotypes around you. If a “man’s” product does the same thing as a woman’s, and costs less, try using the cheaper one. When shopping for toys, consider gender neutral items, such as legos or dinosaurs.
Gender identity justice is for everyone. We are more than pink and blue.