Don’t Pink-and-Blue Me

Color-Segregated Toys Stores Mirror Society’s Strict Gender-Role Divide

By S.M. Dipali

Photo by Emily Liu

There is a boys’ window and girls’ window at this Sparkys toy store in Prague’s center. Photo by Emily Liu

Walking into Sparky’s, a popular Czech toy store with locations across the country, evokes a sense of time travel. Reminiscent of stores in the United States decades earlier, one wall is lined with bright pink items, and the other stands at stark contrast with dark blues, greens, and blacks. The store is completely divided into a “girls” and “boys” side.

Items in the girl’s side include toys geared toward household activities: baby dolls, baby strollers, kitchens, and makeup trays. There is one section dedicated to fake cleaning supplies. The opposite side allows for a little more variety but which are still “masculine” toys: a myriad of cars, trucks, construction tools, and building blocks. Cross-contamination between the pink and blue aisles is rare.

“The toy selection in the Czech Republic really restricts boys and girls from exploring new activities and interests – children are not encouraged to look outside typical gender roles,” Zdena Novotna, a gender studies professor at New York University in Prague, said.

Sparky’s is typical of almost all Czech toy stores: the selection consists of toys that clearly define stereotypical gender roles. These segregated toys are indicative of a rigidity with gender roles in the Czech Republic; women are generally expected to stay at home with the children when they are not in school, while men go to work.

A country still grappling with the societal changes brought about by the fall of communism in 1989, the Czech Republic suffers from a 25% pay gap between men and women, according to the Social Innovation Fund. In a country where breast implants are incentives for nursing positions, and prestigious universities host student beauty pageants complete with swimsuit sections, toys are just one more reflection of how boys and girls are expected fulfill what some might say are outdated roles.

The setup of toy stores in the Czech Republic reinforces static views on gender

Photo from the World Bank Photo Collection

Is pink only for girls? Photo courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection

expectations. Boys are raised thinking they are supposed to be strong, technical, and masculine, while girls are supposed to be feminine, maternal, and devoted to the care of others. This is all said through the toy selection.

Gail Whitmore, an American who moved to the Czech Republic in 2002 and mother of a seven-year-old son, has found Czech gender roles to be worse than those in the United States, where there is also plenty of criticism on gender stereotyping.

“I took my son, Atreyu, to buy pins for his hair because his bangs were growing out. When we got to the aisle, he picked out the bright pink barrettes with sparkles,” Whitmore recalled. “I told him, ‘You are mostly likely going to get comments.’  He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care.’

“He’s confident in himself and what he wants. But it bothers me that he’s been made to see that it’s a problem that he likes pink.”

An activist for gender equality, Whitmore has always stressed to her son the importance of being whoever he wants to be, regardless of society’s gender expectations. Her attitudes reflect a growing emphasis in countries like the United States and Sweden on gender equality.

In the United States there is a movement led by Stanford engineering graduate Debra Sterling, which encourages young girls to develop technical skills through their toys. Dubbed “GoldieBox,” the company aims to “disrupt the pink aisle” with construction toys with hopes that girls cultivate an early interest in engineering, math, and technology.

“The toy selection in the Czech Republic really restricts boys and girls from exploring new activities and interests – children are not encouraged to look outside typical gender roles.”

The initiative has received much publicity, with many Americans applauding Sterling’s efforts to encourage female interest in the sciences. (According to the National Contact Center for Women and Science, Czech women represent 25% of the workforce in the sciences, very close behind the 27% of the workforce that U.S. women make up).

The ‘female’ sections of Pompo, another popular Czech toy store, do not have the extensive building blocks and construction toys that can be found in the ‘male’ section. In fact, they do not even have the option of non-fantasy related toys. The costume area for girls consists of a overwhelmingly pink selection of princess and fairy outfits. Boys, on the other hand, have the option to dress up as a doctor, construction worker, or astronaut.

Meanwhile, Sweden has been ranked by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) as the most advanced country in the European Union in gender equality. The country recently approved regulations that prohibit sexist advertising in toy catalogues. Accordingly, Top Toy, one of Scandinavia’s leading toy sellers, released a catalogue that featured a boy playing with a doll and a girl shooting a Nerf gun.

The Czech Republic is far behind Sweden when it comes to gender neutrality. EIGE ranked the country ten points lower than the European Union average, bringing the Czech Republic to the same level as religious and conservative countries like Poland.

Yet, despite the gender stereotypes in the Czech Republic, many Czech parents do not see a problem with typical gender roles and do not find their children to be limited by the toys offered in stores.

“I never really saw the gender-separated toy selection here as a problem until it was pointed out. My son, Charlie, doesn’t really feel restricted by the toys that are offered. But at the same time, he only knows what he sees,” said Helena Srchova, accountant and mother of a seven-year-old.

Some find the idea of changing gender stereotypes and the movement towards gender neutrality redundant.

Photo from The Telegraph

Some countries require toy catalogs to combat gender stereotypes. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

“My boys played with a baby trolley once when they were two years old. It was really funny. It wasn’t ours, it was borrowed from my friend with three girls. I mean, it’s a little stupid to buy a stroller for boys,” said Helena Jelinkova, mother of two sons and employee of an outsourcing agency. When later asked if she would ever dress her boys in pink, she responded incredulously with, “Pink for a boy? No!”

Gender studies experts in the Czech Republic argue this type of gender segregation increased after the fall of communism, a governmental system that mandated equality of pay and job opportunities for both sexes.

“One could say that under capitalism there is far more segregation. Under communism, there was active policy that promoted an agenda for women in politics. There was far more of an emphasis on gender equality, and this was supported by the government. Both women and men worked in industries and used machinery, and were paid equally,” Novotna said.

After the transition to capitalism, Novotna explains, there was a “backlash against what communism was trying to propagate,” and women were extended the ‘luxury’ of staying at home while men worked.

There was also a reduction of state support for new mothers and newly expensive child care facilities that few could afford, so for economic reasons, many couples opted to assume more traditional gender roles, where women stayed home longer after birth. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, there is a customary four-year maternity leave allowed for women in the Czech Republic in comparison to the United States’ average maternity leave of 10.3 weeks.

This shift is seen clearly by the gender-segregated toys in stores, which one could say forces traditional gender roles upon future generations.

“It’s not bad to see that boys and girls are different. Studies have shown that boys and girls are naturally drawn to different toys. But it’s not good to limit possibilities. Boys are often encouraged to be explorers and builders – they are hardly ever encouraged to be fathers. Girls are encouraged to be mothers – but they are not encouraged to be workers. Toys should better prepare both genders for the possibilities of life,” Novotna said.

However, there is one toy in Sparky’s that seems to bridge the gap between the pink and blue aisles: Legos. They exist in both sections.

Still, upon closer examination, even Legos showcase typical Czech gender segregation. Like the rest of store, the Lego sets are separated between the “boy Legos” and the “girl Legos”. The boy’s sets consist of hospital scenes, fire stations, police officers, construction scenes, and astronauts. The girl’s sets portray scenes of shopping, cooking, and fairytales.

When Illona, a small, blonde-haired girl grabbed for a “boy’s” hospital set, her father put it back on the shelf and directed his daughter towards a Lego kitchen set.

“These are boys Legos – they are not meant for her,” asserted Andrej Babka, owner of a small restaurant in Prague and father of the six-year old girl, “They are not feminine. Only the sets meant for girls are appropriate for my daughter.”

S.M. Dipali is in NYU Stern Class of 2016. Her hometown is Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Categories: Spring 2014 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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