Interview with neuroscientist Cordelia Fine

From Let toys be Toys:

October 4, 2013
Here at Let Toys Be Toys, we are huge fans of Cordelia Fine, Australian neuroscientist and author of the best-selling book “Delusions of Gender”. In her book she takes a critical look at the science behind the popular claims that boys and girls are “hard-wired” differently, and finds it severely lacking.

So you can imagine how thrilled we were when Cordelia said that she was a supporter of our campaign and agreed to answer our questions (of which we had many!). No-one is better placed to talk about the harmful effects that the gender stereotypes perpetuated by the toy industry and the media have on children.

Cordelia, thanks so much for joining us. We have some followers in Australia who say that the situation there is similar to the UK. When you walk into a toy shop in Australia what can you expect to see?

My casual observation is that many toy shops, especially within large retailers, have a ‘pink’ section, a ‘dark-tough’ section, and then more ‘neutral’ parts. And, as in the UK, there are ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ versions of just about anything you might want to buy for a child, from bikes to recorders. It’s worth pointing out too that people of course often shop for toys online, and some online business quite explicitly categorise their toys as being ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’.

What do you think is the most harmful message that this type of segregation sends out to children?

When certain kinds of toys are marked quite clearly for one sex, it not only reinforces inaccurate stereotypes that only girls are nurturing, or that only boys are competitive or aggressive, but it also makes those toys less appealing to the children of the supposedly ‘wrong’ sex. Developmental psychologists have called it the ‘hot potato’ effect.

So gendered marketing hinders children from developing a whole range of skills and interests?

Gendered marketing contributes to a culture in which girls have less opportunity to benefit from the positive play activities and values facilitated by ‘boy toys’, (e.g., physicality, competition, construction) and boys have less opportunity to benefit from the positive play activities and values facilitated by ‘girl toys’ (e.g. fine motor skills, caring, co-operation). Emphasising gender has also been shown to reduce children’s interest in mixed-sex play.

I think we need to ask ourselves if this is what we want in the twenty-first century? Surely our goal as parents and as a society should be for our children to believe that what sex they are makes no difference to what they want to do, what they are interested in, or what they want to be. We should be equipping all children, regardless of their sex, to be caring, empathic, competent, ambitious and assertive. These goals are undermined by a childhood culture that relentlessly genders children’s toys.

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