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We need to reframe pink and blue to create equality for our children.

We need to reframe pink and blue to create equality for our children.

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This week on the blog we’re joined by Clare Willetts, CEO and Founder of not only pink and blue who has written a brilliant post about gender stereotyping for us.

How often have you heard that “girls simply like pink – it’s how they are born”, and that “boys prefer cars and building blocks to dolls”?

But if we take a just a little bit of time to look deeper we can see that colours are simply colours – girls used to be dressed in blue in the 1800s, and that boys express more interest in dolls than cars in their early months. From hairstyles to careers and pockets to sports, if we take a look at the messages we give our children we can see how pervasive these stereotypes still are.

And if you are worried about this then don’t worry, you are not alone. An increasing number of parents are aware of gender stereotypes and the impact they have on children. A recent Fawcett Society study found that 60% of parents are worried about gender stereotyping.

The good news is, we can change these assumptions and in doing this, we can really help drive equality for our children.

The world wasn’t always blue for boys and pink for girls.

Did you know that pink used to be the colour for boys? In fact prior to the 1900s all children wore white. In the 1800s boys and girls wore white dresses until they were around 6, there are images of F. D. Roosevelt at 2 years old in a dress with long hair! No-one thought anything of it. It was practical with easy access to nappies and white could be bleached to remove stains. But as pastel colours were developed they were originally not gender specific. In 1918 the Ladies Home Journal wrote:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

As we moved through the 1920s we continue to see the same trend; in 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colours for boys and girls according to leading U.S stores. Popular, fashionable stores of the time (Halle’s, Best and Co, and Filene’s) all told parents to dress their boys in pink.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s that we started to see pink for a girl and blue for a boy. And although the colours changed the language didn’t. It was still referred to as ‘pretty in pink’.

So, it’s not the colours that have particular meaning for children it’s that we have placed meaning into those colours with the language we use.

Girls in trousers?

In the 1800s it was illegal for women to wear trousers. It was seen as unfeminine – something we see as ridiculous today (although don’t get me started on pockets)! Surprisingly, the law in France banning women wearing trousers (without permission from the local police) was officially over-turned in 2013.

That was only 9 years ago!

Of course, this hasn’t been enforced for years but it demonstrates how we assume that these rules are a thing of the past. From hairstyles to careers and pockets to sports, if we take a look at the messages we give our children we can see how pervasive these stereotypes still are.

60% of parents are worried about gender stereotyping

There is increasing  awareness number of the impact gender stereotypes have on children. A recent Fawcett Society study found that 60% of parents are worried about gender stereotyping. We often see the limitations that gender stereotypes place on girls, but we are also starting to acknowledge the limitations they place on boys as well.

Research carried out by Let Toys be Toys looking at toy catalogues found that only 13% of children playing ‘caregiving’ activities were boys. Yet a study by Dr Paola Escudero and researchers from MARCS BabyLab found that five month-old boy babies were more engaged with images of dolls than cars. These findings counter the stereotypes that are often seen as fact and when we look at the way clothes and toys are divided in our shops and online stores it’s easy to see how stereotypes can be reinforced.

It’s at around 3 or 4 years old that children start to understand the concept of girls and boys and they learn quickly what this means for them. The short cuts for those (pink or blue, caring or active, quiet or boisterous) fall into place and children absorb how they are ‘supposed’ to act. We only have to look at the slogans on clothing to tell us. The pink tops with ‘cute’, ‘smile’, ‘love’ and the blue tops with ‘adventure’, ‘hero’, ‘boisterous’ are clear for us all to see and that language gets imbued into the colours, in-turn becoming short cuts for those stereotypes – pretty in pink.

Stereotypes create limitations for our children

One of the main reasons we need to challenge stereotypes is because they create limitations for our children. By “age 7, children’s career aspirations appear to be shaped and restricted by gender-specific ideas about certain jobs.”

The ‘Drawing the Future’ study from 2018 showed that boys overwhelmingly aspired to traditionally male dominated sectors while girls drew more ‘nurturing’ sectors.

We teach little boys that caring roles are not for them. Dolls are described as ‘girls’ toys, adults often question little boys if they are playing with a push chair. If boys as young as 18 months old are discouraged from playing Daddy, how can we expect them as adults to feel empowered to take a primary role in parenting?

It shows that we have to be mindful of the how we talk to our children, be aware of what they see and hear because if we really want to stop children limiting their own options from a very young age, we need to give them the freedom to play and explore.

Parents can take an active role in challenging gender stereotypes

As parents we have a lot to think about when we are raising our children. Challenging stereotypes can feel like an additional thing on our to do list. But often we don’t even notice them ourselves and inadvertently reinforce stereotypes even if we don’t intend to.

Recent research by LEGO Group found that parents taking part in the study were “almost five times as likely to encourage girls over boys to engage in dance (81% vs. 19%) and dress-up (83% vs. 17%) activities, and over three times as likely to do the same for cooking/baking (80% vs. 20%).”

The impact of this is clear. By restricting play we narrow skill sets, restrict aspirations and it can affect confidence and mental wellbeing.

If we want to create an equal world then we need to start with equal play.

Stereotypes can be unlearnt

There is good news though, we can change this. The brain is malleable so it can un-learn these stereotypes and remove the limitations that they create. As Gina Rippon says in her book ‘The Gendered Brain’:

“We now know that, even in adulthood, our brains are continually being changed, not just by the education we receive, but also by the jobs that we do, the hobbies we have, the sports we play. The brain of a working London taxi driver will be different from that of a trainee and from that of a retired taxi driver.”

The brain is always learning.

And for parents that’s incredibly positive, because even though stereotypes are often reinforced in cartoons, fairy tales, books, toys and clothes with a conscious effort we can encourage our children to challenge and question them enabling children to become the individual they want to be.

Maybe we, as parents, will learn a thing or two in the process and together we can grow generations of equals.

Here are Clare’s top three tips to challenge stereotypes with your kids:

  1. Being aware is the first step – take a moment to think about the eenvirnment around you, how are the shops organised, are you asked to select boy or girl when shopping on line, what kind of language are those around you using, what type of story books do your children have at home or at nursery/school?
  2. Reinforce that all colours are for all children. Pink and blue become the short cut for gender stereotypes so by demonstrating that all colours are not gendered we also challenge the associations with these colours.
  3. Role model sharing of responsibilities at home. If you have both a male and female parent at home then make sure you demonstrate to your children that chores at home are not gender specific. Share chores amongst your children and make sure these are shared equally regardless of gender, from weeding, to laying the table, trying to fix something that’s broken and washing up.

Pop to our site for a helpful downloadable sheet with useful information and for more resources and useful organisations take a look at https://www.notonlypinkandblue.com/resources/

Find that online shops make you filter by boy/girl? Then browse our directory of brands who have products for all children. You’ll find details of the brands, what they sell and many have a special not only pink and blue discount code for you to use too!

About Clare:

Clare is CEO and Founder of notonlypinkandblue.com an online retailer challenging stereotypes in children’s clothes, books and toys.  Clare set up not only pink and blue to challenge the tradition of dressing girls in pink and boys in blue. After all, there are 11 colours and over 10 million shades to choose from! By changing buying behaviour that perpetuates stereotypes and helping companies create a culture free from gender typecasting and support all parents, whatever their gender.

not only pink and blue works with leaders from multiple fields to map out and promote the benefits of a world that does not stereotype children. Most recently not only pink and blue has developed an innovative Parental leave programme that encourages uptake of shared Parental leave.


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