A Toy Industry Expert Examines Retailers For Gender Bias And Finds … A Lot Of It

Girls, apparently, don't drive.

by Richard Gottlieb
Originally Published: 
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We in the toy industry tend to treat the loss of our child customer, and in particular the girl customer, at earlier and earlier ages as something beyond our control. We blame changes in society, technology and even diet for their drifting away from the toy aisle toward clothes, video games and the Internet. What if it is that we are sending children, and particularly girls, messages that we don’t care about them; that we don’t make toys for them? What if, at least in part, we are responsible for age compression?

It was with this in mind that I decided to analyze the toy catalogs of five large mass market retailers in the United States. My purpose was to see, through their marketing, how these retailers communicate to girls.

What if we are sending children, and particularly girls, messages that we don’t care about them?

The companies in question are: Toys R Us, Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart and Sears. Among them, they control more than 50 precent of the country’s toy business. Their societal reach is even greater with visibility in most cities and television ads ubiquitous. If they are sending a message, whether intended or not, it is going to have an impact.

Counting The Pictures

We felt a significant indicator would be to see how many boys vs. how many girls were photographically depicted in each catalog. We counted the total number of children depicted and the percentage of those shown that were girls — in some cases, due to their young age, it was difficult to determine gender, and therefore they were not counted.

With the exception of Toys R Us, the other retailers limited the depiction of girls to a ratio of almost 2-to-1 (Wal-Mart and Kmart) and 5-to-1 (Sears). If you were a girl, or the parent of a girl, looking through these catalogs, what might be your reaction?


Beyond the picture counts, we wanted to see with what toys the children depicted were playing. We looked at the ride-on vehicle category (bicycles, skates, scooters, ride-ons, etc.) because they are arguably gender neutral. Again, we counted by gender.

And again, with the exception of Toys R Us, girls were either not included or marginally shown. The message that girls might take from any of these books other than Toys R Us is that riding is not for them. It’s how boys play. We wonder if a girl might be a bit puzzled or confused by their absence on these pages.

Transition Toys

What about toys that should have transitioned from female to male or at least be seen as gender neutral? One category that has changed over the last decade is cooking. After all, according to recent surveys, Dads do most of the grocery shopping and men seem to host most of the popular cooking shows. So how are cooking sets shown in the catalogs?

Target showed 5 sets: 3 with girls and 1 with a boy. Sears, Kmart and Wal-Mart each showed 1 set; in all three cases it was with a girl. Toys R Us showed five sets with 6 girls and 2 boys. They were in the “girl’s area” (the pages were heavily pink).

What do you think would happen if the toy industry produced cooking sets oriented toward boys rather than staying with the Betty Crocker look?

Other Gender Neutral Toys

Games (board, video and action) are certainly gender neutral. The retailers, however, saw it differently. Target showed images of girls with games 28 percent of the time; Wal-Mart, 22 percent; Kmart, 25 percent and Toys R Us, 33.3 percent.

Miniature cars, trains and trucks should be gender neutral but only Kmart showed a girl with miniature vehicles.

Bottom Line

What is the bottom line? The toy industry may unnecessarily be losing sales to girls and boys. We have a problem in how we relate particularly girls. How do we fix it?

Ultimately we can fix it by moving away from gender as a means of categorizing, marketing and merchandising and move toward sorting toys by the multitude of interests that make each child unique. Yes, it’s a more complex exercise, but the payoff may just be greater sales and a closer relationship with the public we ultimately serve: children.

Richard is the CEO of Global Toy Experts, a global consultancy and resource for knowledge and guidance for competing in the 21st century play and children’s media businesses. He is also the publisher of Global Toy News, the industry resource for toy news, toy trends and analysis of the business of play.

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