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Why changing stereotypes is anything but child's play; High Street giant Marks & Spencer has just announced it will soon scrap the targeting of particular toys at girls or boys. Here Joy Kent, chief executive of Chwarae Teg - the women's economic development body for Wales - looks at the prospect of future Christmases free from gender stereotyping.

UNDER the Christmas tree might be an unlikely place to start a cultural and economic revolution.

But, if retail bosses are true to their word, that's what could be happening next festive season and beyond. The annual gift-giving apartheid which sees boys tearing open their train sets, computer games, toolboxes or science sets, while their sisters nurture their baby dolls, set up their kitchens and don nurses' outfits, might actually start to become a thing of the past.

But don't hold your breath. We're sitting on many generations of cultural permafrost that won't melt away that easily.

However there are chinks of light. Marks & Spencer has become the latest high street outlet to pledge an end to the inveterate practice of explicitly marketing certain toys to boys and others to girls.

From the spring, they say, all toys will be positioned as appropriate for both genders and, presumably, we'll have some imaginative advertising to reflect that.

However as soon as this news hit the headlines this week, the reactionary rear-guard swept into action, claiming, predictably, that this was yet more "idiotic political correctness", to quote just one of many contributions to the tsunami of sarcasm that poured out through social media and elsewhere.

It's fascinating how attempts at gender neutral marketing of toys are condemned as "brainwashing" while the more manipulative gender stereotyping is regarded as...well, "just normal". Interestingly the critics tend to focus on how such moves risk making boys less "manly" but they pay less attention to the far more important effect of broadening girls' life experiences and career horizons.

Nevertheless there is evidence that public attitudes are changing, as gender stereotypical advertising campaigns, which would once of have passed without comment, are now drawing storms of criticism.

One supermarket had to back down this year after its exclusively boy-focused promotion of science sets raised many hackles, and another was forced to accept its assertion that "behind every great Christmas there's a mum" was reinforcing an archaic view of the world.

So why do the toys under the Christmas tree matter so much? Quite simply the givers of these gifts are, perhaps unconsciously but very effectively, conditioning more than half of our future workforce to believe that their role is in very limited areas of the economy.

Naturally children see play and fantasy as just having fun, but play always has been a rehearsal for the real world and for future working lives.

By going along with gender-stereotyped toy-buying we are sowing seeds that tell many potentially highachieving female scientists and engineers that such careers are not really appropriate for them.

How else can we explain that fact that so few women enter interesting and rewarding professions that are well within their capability or why only 20% of physics A-level papers are taken by girls, despite the high number who excel in science earlier in their education? Of course, significant numbers of women in Wales and elsewhere are moving ahead in these and other "non-female-traditional" fields but huge numbers are also concentrated on the same old "feminised" occupations, including the "five Cs": caring, catering, cleaning, clerical work and customer service, along with hair and beauty and other personal services.

Are they really genetically hardwired to enter these fields or have we planted the idea in their minds? Frustratingly more than 50% of female apprentices in Wales are training in one of five classic female occupational routes, out of a potential choice of more than 150.

Chwarae Teg's own recent research report A Woman's Place confirmed that a large percentage of Welsh women see many occupations as inappropriate for them.

For example, 80% of them believe building is more suitable for men than women.We've got our own programme known as Fair Foundations designed to tackle the problem at its roots by supporting primary school teachers to create "gender-neutral" classrooms in which boys and girls are less likely to default into segregated play.

Whilst we can and do applaud M&S for their positive action, its only by all of us - parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters together that we can give our children the best grounding for their futures where they play to their strengths and are not held back by today's outdated notions of what's right for boys and girls.

The best Christmas present ever would be to encourage all of the kids to play to their strengths and not to limit their potential at all.

Joy Kent is chief executive of Chwarae Teg, the women's economic development body for Wales


Children look longingly at Christmas toys in a shop window in 1960

Don Smith
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 23, 2013
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