Pink for girls, blue for boys: why toys for children should be free from stereotypes

Posted on Posted in Children's Rights, Education

Gender stereotypes are present in everyday life, including in the toys for children. They impose a significant impact on children’s personal growth and development, as they can reinforce social expectations regarding gender roles and influence their future choices. Opting for gender-neutral toys which allow children to discover their interests and acquire new skills is the best way to support them in developing their full potential

The history of baby colours

While it seems that pink has always been a girl’s colour, and blue is one for the boys, it wasn’t always so (Kyrie, 2020). Pink and blue were not gender signifiers until shortly after World War I. In fact, in the centuries prior to that, all babies were dressed in white gowns, which allowed easy access for diaper changes and could be bleached after wearing. In general, clothing for children up to the age of six or seven was treated as unisex, in order to allow parents to use the same clothes for every baby born (Cahn, 2022).  

Pastel colours (including pink and blue but also others such as yellow) were only introduced in the mid-1800s, presumably because commercial dyes became widely available. In particular, pink was for boys as it was associated with red, which was considered too harsh for girls (Cahn, 2022). Girls therefore assigned a colour associated with sky, purity and softness (Kyrie, 2020). 

It wasn’t until the 1940s that manufacturers went in the opposite direction and decided that pink was for girls, and blue was for boys (Cahn, 2022). With the women’s movement and the rise of feminism in the 60’s and 70’s, the resurgence of unisex-dressed babies reemerged. They used less pink and styles that showed hints towards gender (Auburn, 2019). 

However, by the 80’s, the pink and blue rules started to stick with the public. Specifically, around the mid-80’s prenatal testing began allowing parents to learn the sex of their baby, also around a rising time of mass marketing and consumerism. Retailers knew that individualized clothing would sell better than generic, and took the opportunity to cash in. Just as they do today, advertisers and retailers tapped into the social conventions of gender normality to help sell their product (Auburn, 2019).

The impact of stereotypes in predicting children’s future

At the end of the 20th century, the term “gender“, proposed by the historian Joan W. Scott in 1996, began to be used to refer to the set of norms and attitudes culturally associated with each sex that are transmitted through learning. The communication we receive is based on stereotypes, as they are they are the product of a persistent human tendency that stems from a basic cognitive need to categorize, simplify, and process the complex world (Zhang, et al., 2023). 

Moreover, stereotypes have two characteristics: on one hand, they are descriptive, in the sense that they capture just some elements of the picture and for this reason, they represent a precondition for social bias, prejudice, and discrimination. On the other hand, stereotypes are also prescriptive, in the sense that they provoke what they represent. In fact, through imitation or adaptation to the environment, we tend to conform to what we are expected to be (Ministerio de Consumo, 2021). 

“Most research on the material culture of childhood has confirmed that toys that reflect strict gender roles have significant impact of children’s personal growth and development, as they can reinforce social expectations regarding gender roles.”

– Dr Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, Professor of Literary Theory and Gender and Women’s Studies (White, 2022)

Thinking about gender stereotyping, girls might be encouraged to play with dolls indoors while boys are encouraged to play outside. While this teaches girls to be caregivers from an early age, it can also impede their ability to develop other types of cognitive, physical and social skills. On the other hand, boys are often given toys such as guns to play with and encouraged to participate in physical, and often more aggressive, activities with other boys or male caregivers, which can promote unhealthy expressions of masculinity (UNICEF, 2022). 

Since the very beginning of their life, boys and girls are immersed in this environment which influences the dreams and aspirations they have. For instance, according to research conducted in 2021, boys prefer to be footballers in first place (25.1%) and policemen in second place (15.6%), both activities which arouse admiration in society and coincide with the profile of heroes related to physical activity. Girls still want to be teachers (19.9%), doctors (16.7%) or veterinarians (10.5%), followed by hairdressers (12.1%), occupations related to caring for others and beauty (Ministerio de Consumo, 2021). 

What are the measures to contrast stereotyped toys?

In the private and public sectors, the perspective on gendered toys is changing. In 2021, Danish toy manufacturer Lego announced it would be working to remove gender bias from its toys. This would include no longer marketing items specifically to girls or boys, but selling products as gender-neutral, for whoever wanted to buy them. The move followed toy manufacturing behemoth Hasbro, makers of My Little Pony, Nerf, Transformers and Play-Doh, who dipped its toes in the non-binary toy waters by expanding its Potato Head brand to include a gender-neutral option (White, 2022).

Lego’s decision was borne out of a report commissioned by the company that investigated how children and parents approach creativity. The survey collected about 7,000 views from parents and children from seven countries and it highlighted that gender stereotyping remains high, with 78 percent of boys and 73 percent of girls agreeing with the statement: “It’s OK to teach boys to be boys and girls to be girls” (White, 2022). 

When it comes to gendered toys, the statistics tell an interesting story. While 54 percent of parents worried that their sons would be made fun of for playing with “girls’ toys”, only 24 percent of parents of daughters expressed concerns their little girl would be judged for playing with “boys’ toys”. The results were further evidence of the notion that girls being less valued in society is still being perpetuated (White, 2022). 

On the public side, in 2022 Spain approved a new self-regulatory Code for advertisement of toys for children which entered into force in December 2022. The new regulation bans advertisements aimed at minors that use discriminatory, sexualised or degrading images of girls and encourages using diverse images that are free from gender stereotypes. It commits to avoiding the exclusive association of toys with roles, for example of domestic work or beauty with girls, and with actions, physical activity or technology with boys, and it requires that toys will not be presented with any indication that they are for one sex or the other. 

How to choose toys free from stereotypes

To recognise stereotyped toys, the gold rule is that if it is not suitable for both boys and girls, then it’s sexist. The elements which help in identifying this tendency are linked to colours, names and activities linked to the toy. For instance, if the toy is exactly the same and has the same functions, but it is just in two colours or uses elements that relate it to different sexes, then it is a gendered toy. 

As regards the names, toys for girls that use diminutives portray them as insignificant and fragile while those for boys portray them as dominant and strong. Finally, most toys related to manual and artistic activities are aimed at girls (design your own clothes, create beads, design your own jewellery…) and are considered less valuable than engineering and technical careers, which are rooted in construction and technology games aimed at boys (Ministerio de Consumo, 2021). 

 Playing with dolls can also teach empathy, imagination and taking perspective. So, there are ‘harms’ in restricting toy choices to socially constructed and marketing-driven gendered ones.”

– Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist (White, 2022)

The aim is for them to have a wide and balanced variety of options within their reach. Among the alternatives we offer them, it would be desirable to include a story or book free of stereotypes, as encouraging reading as a method of learning exercises effort, patience and reason. We can also try to include dolls and/or dolls with non-normative bodies, as well as a collaborative board game. 

We should also make sure that we provide some games or toys that encourage outdoor physical activity, as well as others that encourage creativity. It is important that all children have toys that encourage them to develop communication and the expression of their emotions, as well as understanding other people’s emotions (Ministerio de Consumo, 2021). 

A good tip would also be to introduce STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and STEAM (which adds the “A” for art) toys to children as they are gender-neutral and inclusive toys and they stimulate kids’ interest and curiosity for these fields (Macatee, 2022). 

Giving children the possibility to discover their interests and accompanying them in this adventure is the role that adults should play, as it is about giving them all the possibilities so that they can develop to their full potential (Ministerio de Consumo, 2021).  

In this sense, Humanium is strongly engaged in raising awareness of all the aspects which contribute to improving children’s lives and well-being and supporting them in achieving their highest potential. Join Humanium by sponsoring a childmaking a donation, or becoming a member or a volunteer

Written by Arianna Braga


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EU (2023). 2023 report on gender equality in the EU. Retrieved from European Commission at, accessed on 20 January 2024. 

Kyrie, R. (2020). Pink is for Girls; Blue is for Boys. Retrieved from Medium at, accessed on 15 January 2024. 

Macatee, R. (2022). 5 Ways Kids Benefit from Gender-Neutral Toys and Activities. Retrieved from Parents at, accessed on 20 January 2024. 

Ministerio de Consumo (2021). Libertad para jugar. Guía para la elección de juguetes sin estereotipos sexistas. Retrieved from Ministerio de Consumo at, accessed on 16 January 2023. 

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Zhang, B. et al. (2023). The psychological process of stereotyping: Content, forming, internalizing, mechanisms, effects, and interventions. Front Psychol. 2023 Jan 5;13:1117901. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1117901. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine at, accessed on 20 January 2024.