Toy buying can expose children to racial, gender stereotypes, research shows

Nov. 29, 2005

AUSTIN, Texas—Holiday shopping in toy stores can expose young children to harmful racial and gender stereotypes, says a University of Texas at Austin sociologist who has completed a study of the retail toy industry.

“Toy shopping teaches children valuable consumer skills such as accounting and money management,” says sociology professor Dr. Christine Williams. “But kids also are picking up traditional gender stereotypes that are embedded in our culture. For instance, the prevailing idea that boys like trucks and girls play with Barbie is rarely challenged.”

Williams spent several months on the front lines of toy shopping, observing parent and child interactions and shopping habits, to research her new book titled “Inside Toyland.”

“In 300 hours of toy selling, I only witnessed two occasions of customers resisting the typical gender categories,” she says.

Williams worked for six weeks at a large, discount retailer, which she calls the Toy Warehouse, and another six weeks at a small, boutique retailer, which she calls Diamond Toys. She found that parents were using the experience of toy buying to teach their children how to operate in a consumer society.

At the Toy Warehouse, Williams observed that many children had their own money and paid for their own toys, learning the value of their funds as well as how to transact a purchase. These money management skills are important, says communications researcher and author Stephen Kline whose study found that by the age of eight, the average child in the U.S. is alone in a shop three times a week.

While these early shopping experiences can give kids an understanding of consumer culture, they also expose children to harmful gender and racial stereotypes, Williams says.

At both Diamond Toys and the Toy Warehouse, the stores were explicitly divided into distinct boys’ and girls’ sections. Employee responsibilities also were organized according to traditional gender stereotypes, with women working in the doll and stuffed-animal sections, and men generally staffing the electronics departments.

Williams found that the segregation applied to racial groups as well. In both stores, white men filled the director and assistant director positions and mostly white or light-skinned females worked as cashiers. The stockers, cleaning staff and other behind-the-scenes workers were predominantly minorities.

“The assignment of responsibilities served to support and promulgate racial and gender stereotypes,” says Williams. “Employees conform to this stereotyping to keep their jobs.”

Williams also observed that white customers were treated better than black or Hispanic customers and that white employees were treated with greater respect by customers, particularly white customers.

Most shoppers are probably thinking more about which wrapping paper to use than the social impact of buying a toy, but Williams argues that shopping is a critical and highly influential aspect of American society.

“What we buy and how we buy expresses who we are,” says Williams. “Adults need to realize how their actions, both explicit and implicit, shape their children’s attitudes and actions from a very young age.”

For more information contact: Dr. Christine Williams, 512-232-6321.