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There’s no good reason to push pink toys on girls

You only have to walk down the aisle of a toy shop to see that young girls really love pink. This has some parents worried. They are concerned that pink is bad for their daughters. One engineer in the…

Time to give pink toys the pink slip. Dollyclaire

You only have to walk down the aisle of a toy shop to see that young girls really love pink. This has some parents worried. They are concerned that pink is bad for their daughters.

One engineer in the US is so frustrated with pink toys for girls that she has founded her own toy company that encourages girls to embrace the skills associated with engineering. A video by the company last week shows an army of young girls storming the “pink aisle” of a toy shop.

As a neuroscientist, I’m interested why certain toys are embraced by different genders. Why do girls embrace pink dolls, while boys play with vehicles of pretty much any colour, as long as it is not pink? The answers reveal both how humans develop, and how societal pressures act upon children.

Inborn preferences

The gendered preference for dolls versus trucks seems to have an inborn element. Male and female fetuses develop in somewhat different hormone environments, and this influences their later toy preferences. The testes of male fetuses begin producing testosterone at about week eight of gestation, whereas female fetuses' ovaries do not. Consequently, male fetuses have higher levels of testosterone.

Girls with a disorder that causes their adrenal glands to produce high levels of testosterone choose to play with toys like vehicles and other boys’ toys more than other girls do, and they are less interested in dolls and other girls’ toys.

Similarly, normal variability in testosterone in infancy relates to later toy preferences. Testosterone measured in the urine of typically developing infants at ages one to six months predicts gendered behaviour, including interest in dolls and trains. Even monkeys show gender based toy preferences similar to those seen in children. If given sex-typed toys, female monkeys spend more time with the girls’ toys, and male monkeys spend more time with the boys’ toys.

It is not too surprising that female monkeys like dolls, given that they give birth and do most of the parental caring. Why would a male monkey choose a car though? The theory is that testosterone influences brain development to increase interest in vehicles, and that this is part of our evolutionary history, even though this history occurred before cars existed. These findings have led people to rethink the role of toys in children’s development.

In the pink: girls need a healthier relationship with colour. Goldie Box

Rose-coloured glasses

What are the fundamental properties of sex-typed toys that make them differentially interesting to girls versus boys? It does not seem to be colour or shape, because infants of both sexes like reddish colors and rounded shapes more than they like bluish colors and angular shapes. We are now trying to determine if boys like toy vehicles, because they like to watch things moving in space.

Pink is a different story. The sex-typed preference for pink emerges after preferences for dolls and vehicles. Babies aged 12-24 months already show sex-typed toy preferences, with girls showing greater interest in dolls and boys showing greater interest in cars. At this age, however, both girls and boys prefer pink and red over blue. Girls’ preference for pink emerges at about the age of three years, and could be acquired socially as adult colour preferences are.

Because girls spend their early years playing with pink toys, and enjoying these toys, they may come to like pink. The age at which a preference for pink emerges also coincides with children’s acquisition of the understanding that they are girls or boys. At about this age, they are searching for information about what people of their own gender do and like. Girls see that girls like pink and that they like to play with dolls. So they adopt gendered toy preferences, as well as colour preferences.

Toying with kids' futures

Children are also influenced by social reinforcement encouraging gendered behaviour. Parents, peers, teachers and strangers respond differently to girls and boys when they choose to play with dolls or vehicles, or choose things that are pink. Just think of the different reactions to a child playing with a doll if he was a boy, rather than a girl. These patterns of reinforcement apply particularly to boys, who are steered away from girlish things.

Girls outgrow pink, and, in adulthood, both men and women prefer blue to pink. What harm might the gender segregation of pink and pink things in early childhood have done though? Toys provide learning opportunities for children. Playing with dolls and other girls’ toys, such as tea sets, is thought to foster the development of verbal and social skills.

Later in life, females outperform males on tests of writing ability. Perhaps steering boys away from girls’ toys, by colouring them pink and ridiculing boys for playing with them, denies them important learning opportunities. Similarly, toy cars may foster the acquisition of spatial skills that males excel at, but if pink is for girls and these toys are not pink, girls may lose these learning opportunities.

Boys gravitate toward cars, whereas girls gravitate toward dolls, and this is a product of nature as well as nurture. We can’t do much about the nature bit, but we can change nurture.

Colour coding toys to limit their appeal to both sexes nurtures limitation rather than possibility. Parents are right to be worried about the obsession with pink for girls.

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24 Comments sorted by

  1. Steve Phillips

    Nurse Practitioner

    I used to think the boy's prediliction for violence and agressive play was nuture based till a friend told me of their son who was never given guns or any form of violent toy. They caught him running round the house machine-gunning his sisters with a Barbies doll.
    Ah well.

    1. John Perry


      In reply to Steve Phillips

      "machine-gunning his sisters"

      How old was the boy? Where did he find out about machine guns? Who encouraged him to use it as part of his play?

      "Nurture" doesn't have to come from parents. Peers and the media also play a big role in this.

  2. Dale Bloom


    I think there is a lot more to it than preference for car toys.

    As mentioned elsewhere nearly all articles written about business, economics and management are written by men (over 90% I estimate).

    Added to that is less interest from women in science and technology.

    Added to that is almost zero interest from women in trade work outside of baking and hairdressing.

    When such things occur, it is usually said that it is because of sexism from men, but in a feminist type society, men are given the blame for anything, and the cause is much more likely to be physiological.

    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      my sister's a chemist. she married an engineer. their daughters are engineer, architect, stage designer. -a.v.

    2. Dale Bloom


      In reply to alfred venison

      As well, very few female engineers, almost no female mechanics, and very few female plant operators.

      To my knowledge, not one building in this world has ever been built by an all female building crew, while billions have been built by all male building crews.

      I have never known a woman to ever buy a boat, and rarely is there an all female sailing crew.

      Rarely have women ever developed a sport, art form, religion or musical instrument.

      Seems odd that all this is because of nurture.

    3. Robin Allinson


      In reply to Dale Bloom

      More of this is due to nurture than you seem to think. While I'm not saying nature doesn't have an influence, here are a couple of points for you to think about.
      Women managed do do many 'mens jobs' quite well during WWII.
      My brother is a nurse but faced considerable dicouragement in his choice of career when starting out in the '70s.
      A cousin wanted to be a chef but wasn't allowed to do cooking at high school because of his gender.
      Still in the'60s & '70s - girls were actively discouraged from…

      Read more
    4. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Robin Allinson

      In the 60’s and 70’s, the matriculation system required students to do mainly maths and science subjects.

      There was no discouragement of girls doing those subjects, and most schools had a male and female dux, as well as male and female school captains, as well as clubs such as Interact that often had female presidents, secretaries, treasurers etc.

      I might add that about 25% of women do not have children, and less women in time have a family, so family responsibilities are of less significance to women than ever.

      But throughout history, men have provided the most and been the most innovative, while women have mainly copied what men have done if it was successful.

      That is fact, and the physiology of males means that they are often more risk takers, with a desire to innovate and solve a problem rather than complain that there is a problem, and have a greater desire to build and develop something.

      The results of that are all around you.

    5. Will Hunt


      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Your claim of 'very few female plant operators' doesn't hold up in Australia. Many of the big mines in WA prefer women operators for their 500 tonne dumptrucks because they take fewer risks and are less likely to drive them like hotrods

    6. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Will Hunt

      Is that so?

      I know a new mine starting up that recently employed 73 dump truck drivers, and about 5 were women.

      I have yet to see one female crane operator or excavator driver or bulldozer driver or backhoe driver, and rarely is there a female truck driver.

      The concept that such things occur because girls are given pink toys is totally far- fetched.

      The women have minimal interest.

    7. Will Hunt


      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Granted Dale, that is so, but I did say the mines "prefer" them, I didn't say they got them. My mistake.
      I agree that most women are not hard wired to be interested in machinery. See my comment at the bottom of this article

  3. Pat Moore


    Boys like Barbi-like 'living doll' accessories draped on cars (bonnets) & in cars as sexist advertising used to attest?

    And perhaps doll conditioning works two ways for dolls for young girls to play (sex role stereotyped) mothers are usually now very life-like and some are actual size which looks very strange when being carted around by an obese child as I saw recently. When girls graduate to tan skin toned, fashion-tragic sexualised Barbies then the doll conditioning works on them…

    Read more
  4. Robin Allinson


    In the 50s the favourite colour of most little girls was yellow. In the 60s orange was very popular. Colour preferences are heavily influenced by cultural expectations and fashion.
    Boys and girls play preferences are to some extent inate but are highly exagerated by expectations and encouragement of parents and community.
    Dolls like Power Rangers can enable boys to engage in roll play games without being accused of being sissy - the adult comments have a bigger impact than a child's natural choice of toys.

  5. John Doyle


    I remember seeing on Qi that until before last century all babies were called girls. Boy used to mean servant;"boy!'. Pink was the colour for babies including boy babies.
    So a lot of stereotyping is cultural and has changed over time.

  6. David Thompson

    Marketing Research

    "Later in life, females outperform males on tests of writing ability."
    Er, Melissa, you linked to data for AMERICAN High School students. They are nothing like Australian students.

    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to David Thompson

      But one thing we do know is males are more diverse than females. That means more males than females at BOTH extremes of behaviour/performance. There are more male geniuses AND more male morons. There are more male entrepreneurs and leaders AND more male psychopaths.

  7. George Michaelson


    Fox Hunting costume for men is called pink isn't it?

    I'm also informed by my Persian colleagues it remains a hugely popular colour for young men and boys across Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Which is presumably exploitable for comparative study of developmental issues and parental reinforcement.

    Several tool and craft outlets down here in Australia sell fully functional pink tools. Hammers, pliers, screwdriver sets. I have been in several conversations about how they might stop blagging of the tools at work, or at least encourage their return.

  8. Will Hunt


    On our daughters second birthday my Dad gave her a dolls pram.
    Being an enlightened father I was determined that our baby daughter wasn't to be stereotyped into this girly business, I gave her a model green tractor.
    When she took her little tractor in her arms, said "ooh, that's nice", put it in the pram with the radiator on the pillow and tucked it in with a blanket and started rocking it, I reluctantly had to admit that my Dad knew more about these things than I did.

  9. Rod Govers

    Retired IT administrator

    I'm surprised not to have read either in the article or in the comments so far that prior to WWII the associated colours for boys and girls were the reverse of what we today: pink for boys and blue for girls.

  10. Tim Benham

    Student of Statistics

    Seems like a storm in a pink teacup. The color issue is social and has no necessary connection to the types toys given to children. You can make a toy car pink and a tea set blue. It could be argued that the color coding is just a convenience to the parents: if you're shopping you go to the pink aisle if you want a gynocentric toy.

  11. Dale Heywood

    logged in via Twitter

    what tosh! I am a female born three years after a set of male twins. I therefore have higher testosterone levels than many females and am not someone who ever thought in pink so to speak. I was an all round sporty sort as a kid.

    So folks, it is as much to do with the testosterone/oestrogen levels in your Mothers wombs as it is social pressures to conform. Check the science!

    My own four sons were given all kinds of toys as children including shopping trolleys, play kitchens, prams, sewing kits and dolls because as grown ups, those are the kind of instruments that they would use as men and fathers. Cars, garages, books and construction sets were in there too but not exclusively. This article just perpetuates hard to shift myths about gender stereotyping I'm afraid.