December marks my 12th anniversary with Toy Industries of Europe and it is safe to say that when I first joined, the topic of diversity or inclusion was not at all on the agenda, not in the toy sector, and hardly at all in society more generally. Yes, there were those who felt that toy marketing or the way toys were presented in shops was not gender-neutral enough. But this was only a faint buzzing in the margins, not taken very seriously. Society as a whole did not seem worried about it or did not expect a different position. When some shops started taking down ‘for boys’ & ‘for girls’ directions, customers complained: they wanted more clarity for faster and more targeted shopping.
Those days are gone. I’m happy and proud to say that our companies now are much more encouraging both girls and boys to be whatever they want. Many of our toy companies are trying to ensure that through toys ALL skillsets are stimulated, regardless of gender. You see this reflected in catalogues with young boys pushing the doll’s pram and girls with chemistry sets. And it is more than marketing: the toys themselves are encouraging children to discover their full potential, to encourage them to want to be whatever they dream of being.
Research shows that starting at the age of five, many girls develop self-limiting beliefs and feel they may not be as smart or capable as boys. It is great to see how toy companies are trying to overcome and reverse this ‘DreamGap’ by providing little girls with aspirational role models or by calling their attention to those women who changed history. Who better than the toy sector to address this, as toys help children play out their dreams. There are now male nurses and female astronauts for children to play with.
In 2020, Toy Industries of Europe (TIE) launched the Play for Change Awards to celebrate toymakers who help kids confidently navigate the world around them, in ways that show respect for themselves, for others, and for our planet. One of the three Award categories is all about empowering children: we wanted to recognise the efforts of toy manufacturers who are trying to break boundaries based on outdated ‘norms’ of social status, ability, sex, race or religion. We believe very strongly that experiencing diversity, inclusion, and equality will help children thrive and we would like to see the toy sector to be a motor for that. Besides celebrating those toymakers who are already driving for a positive change in children’s lives, the Awards also want to provide an extra, positive nudge for others to go down the same road.
Besides this positive gender equality course and the empowerment of young girls, many toy makers are also acting on the need to reflect society more in their toy offer. Disabled children should now be able to find dolls in their own image. This year’s Gold winner of the Awards is Miniland who have expanded their range of baby dolls with dolls that represent children with Down syndrome from different races and genders. As well as making sure children with Down syndrome can recognise themselves, which must be a real comfort, the dolls help teach the values of inclusion and diversity through play.
As kids get more and more used to playing with ‘different looking’ dolls, friendly intentions towards children who are ‘different’ will grow too. In this way, play can promote empathy and acceptance of people of any race, gender, or condition. Although it is not surprising, if you think about it, it has long been ignored that something as simple as a toy can help bridge cultural divides and will raise the self-esteem of plenty of children. Kids love moving away from one-dimensional images. One very successful example is to see how the iconic Barbie doll sales are exceeding expectations for the ‘curvy’ range.
I am proud to see this change in our sector. It is beyond a ‘shy start’, perhaps not yet at a watershed moment but I am confident that this is unstoppable and will continue to grow and grow, which can only be a good thing.
Toymakers know the power their ‘tools of play’ can have over children and they are choosing to use that power for a very positive change. In a few years’ time, those children will have children of their own and will hopefully have a more positive effect on society. It’s a snowball effect and we welcome it!
About the author:
Catherine Van Reeth is Director General of Toy Industries of Europe. She leads TIE in promoting a positive environment in which the toy sector can thrive and continue to bring safe and fun play experiences to children. Catherine has worked in EU public affairs for over 25 years and is an expert in consumer protection policy.