- What is it about?
The debate around diversity and inclusivity in the marketing of children’s toys and apps often centres around the concept that when children play beyond the traditional confines of gender, race or ablism, and have a number of diverse role models, real-world inequalities can be ironed out and children will be more positively engaged with the product. (http://national.deseretnews.com/article/5774/how-important-is-gender-in-childrens-toys-and-play.html )
In particular, there is a focus on encouraging engagement amongst girls and children of diverse backgrounds with STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. This is sometimes broadened to include Art + Design (STEAM).
Successful children’s apps that encourage young girls and children of diverse backgrounds to engage with STEM include Toca-Boca, Goldie Blox and TinyBop.
Toca Boca, an award-winning games design company which celebrated 100 million downloads last year, has developed an official gender neutrality process for developing its products. The process takes into account colour choice, language, active or passive behaviour and character design within the app.
Recently, Toca-Boca reaffirmed its commitment to diversity in its games by redesigning and relaunching the game Toca Robot Lab, which was originally released in 2011. After undertaking an internal study of its existing products alongside gender analysts and experts, Toca Boca identified a number of conventionally ‘boyish’ features associated with robots in the app. The newly redesigned Toca Robot Lab was launched on the App store in 2014 and had been altered to be more in line with the gender-neutral design ethic that Toca Boca embraces.
Mathilda Engman, a Toca Boca employee and advocate on gender neutral design, said that “play is creative and open-ended, and not something that should have adult attitudes projected on to it…. We make digital toys for all kids, not just for girls or for boys.” (https://tocaboca.com/press-post/toca-boca-redesigns-its-robot-lab-to-promote-gender-neutrality/ )
GoldieBlox, on the other hand, makes STEM-focused toys and apps aimed at girls in particular, seeking to “break down gender stereotypes, and teach girls from a young age – and boys too – that girls are capable of being more than just a princess or pop star,” according to Chief Executive Debbie Sterling.
However, some argue that apps that focus on diversity and equality disregard the importance of binary gender roles in children’s development, thus constituting an ‘attack’ on traditional family values. Tony Abbott’s statement in 2014 that we should “let boys be boys, let girls be girls” criticised the “political correctness” he perceived in campaigns such as No Gender December, which advocated for mindfulness when purchasing overtly ‘gendered’ Christmas presents. (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-02/katter-hits-back-at-campaign-to-boycott-gender-based-toys/5933308 ).
Other critiques against diversity in the marketing of children’s toys and apps, such as the #OffTarget social media campaign, are grounded in religious beliefs, perceiving neutrality in marketing as an attack on “the genders God created”. (http://qz.com/494673/science-shows-gender-neutral-toys-empower-children-and-possibly-society-at-large/ ).
On the other hand, advocates for diversity and inclusivity in marketing towards children suggest that rigidly defined gender roles or a lack of diverse representation can negatively impact children’s play, causing them to internalise certain beliefs about their own capacities or ‘role’ and restricting their creativity and development. Many experts and concerned parents point to studies that show gender roles are ‘learned’ through social conditioning; for instance, young boys only cease to show an interest in dolls at the age at which they learn such an interest is not acceptable in a societal context.
Dr Elizabeth Sweet, sociologist and lecturer at the University of California, focusses her research on gender and toys. She has said that “studies have found that gendered toys do shape children’s play preferences and styles”, and that by limiting the “range of skills and attributes that both boys and girls can explore through play”, we may also limit the development of “their full range of interests, preferences and talents”.
Arguably vast gender disparities in the science and technology sectors suggest that marketing STEM primarily to boys is not only illogical but also irresponsible, perpetuating wider societal inequalities. Although gender equality has come a long way over the last 100 years, there are still gaping disparities. In Australia there is a national gender pay gap of 18.8%, and the number is far higher within some male-dominated industries. https://www.wgea.gov.au/media-releases/national-gender-pay-gap-record-high-188
Women constitute less than one-fifth of Australians qualified in STEM sectors and are paid far less than their colleagues. A 2016 report by the Office of the Chief Scientist shows only 16% of the 2.3 million Stem-qualified Australians are female, with engineering showing the largest gender gap. Within the STEM sector 32% of men hit the highest income bracket ($104,000), compared with only 12% of women.
Similarly, the tech industry in America (and several Silicon Valley firms in particular) have been accused of perpetuating a “brogrammer”, misogynistic culture that is unwelcoming and alienating towards women.
Boys, too, may suffer from social conditioning during childhood that suppresses their nurturing, sensitive or articulate sides and suggests they must be ‘strong’ in their masculinity. Studies such as those presented by Niobe Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, suggest these boys may grow into teenagers and men who suffer high rates of depression, struggle to empathise with others around them or take on the role of fatherhood, and may struggle to reach out to support services.
These negative implications of the societal conditioning of gender in childhood are seen against a backdrop of children’s marketing that has never been so segregated. Dr Elizabeth Sweet points out that the amount of gendered toys today is “unprecedented”, with some outlets such as the Disney online store 100% gender coded. In contrast, only 32% of toys were marketed to specific genders in the 1970s.
Another dimension to the issue of diversity and marketing is how to ensure diversity across the board – that is, how to ensure diverse racial, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds are represented in the product. GoldieBlox CEO Debbie Sterling has admitted that the company has faced criticism for not being racially diverse due to Goldie, the main character, being white and blonde – typical Eurocentric features that may alienate girls and children from other backgrounds.
“That wasn’t something I thought about very much” said Sterling, demonstrating that many biases may be unconscious or difficult to pick up on early in the production process. Since facing criticism GoldieBlox has introduced a group of ethnically diverse group of friends, but Sterling has admitted that she sometimes wishes the company had “done this differently”, pointing out the difficulty of working with a “heated issue” such as gender or race.
And naturally, any issue around marketing involves conducting research and tailoring products to an audience, which can be problematic when dealing with societally conditioned elements such as race or gender. In simple terms, Sterling admits that “research can bite you in the ass a little bit, because of what’s been popular so far”, leading to ‘stereotypical’ or traditional ideas being adopted over more innovative concepts.
- What are the key terms of the debate?
Diversity: In the context of this debate, diversity means that a variety of genders, cultures, races, and even sexualities or socioeconomic backgrounds are represented and catered for in a product.
Equality: the state of having equal rights, opportunities and respect. In the context of diversity in children’s apps and toys, equality is often framed in the context of gender, but brands can also strive to promote racial equality or equality for children with disabilities
Gender bias: gender bias essentially refers to discrimination based on gender, but can sometimes be subtle or contentious — i.e. marketing action heros to boys and princess toys to girls is arguably a display of gender bias but many view this type of marketing as ‘harmless’ or natural.
Gender neutrality: in the context of this debate, gender-neutral products or companies are those that avoid distinguishing roles or characteristics according to people’s sex or gender, and instead market to children across the board (not specifically for boys or girls)
Social Responsibility: the idea that a company has an ethical ‘duty’ or moral imperitive to consider the impact of their marketing and the nature of their product on consumers (in this case, children) or even on the state of society as a whole – i.e. some would argue that marketing STEM products exclusively to boys as unethical and perpetuates societal inequalities in those fields
STE(A)M: stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, (Arts + Design) and Maths. Typically male-dominated fields in the workplace.
Empowerment: in this context, refers to the process whereby children actively engage with content in a positive capacity and are thus inspired, encouraged or validated in some way – i.e. GoldieBlox seeks to give girls a sense of empowerment and encourage them to participate in the STEM fields
Inclusivity: defined in the Oxford dictionary as the “intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who are handicapped or learning-disabled, or racial and sexual minorities…”
Representation: the portrayal of characterisation of certain individuals or groups that, in this context, children can then identify with and engage with. Currently there is a lot of debate around lack of representation of people of colour in cinema, particularly women of colour and LGBTQI individuals