Why do girls get glitter, hair and fluff while boys can have money, cars and trees?

The kind of cradle-to-grave gender-based marketing that suggests girls like princesses and boys like adventures has to stop. Language is the one of the most powerful tools we have, and using it to project such a sexist agenda is unacceptable.

The above picture, which was doing the rounds earlier this week on Twitter, was naturally met with much consternation. Both sets of fridge magnets are part of Indigo Worldwide’s National Literacy Range, and do much to highlight the gender differences apparent in many of the products marketed to children. The Amazon reviews are something to behold. "Usually it would take a child quite a number of years to really receive and understand all these spectacularly sexist messages about being a girl," writes Kay. "But here, for such a small amount of money, these messages can all be received at once and not only that, but they can be left attached to a fridge so the girls get to see them each and every day." C Hurley, meanwhile, writes: "Thank goodness the set excludes any complicated words like Doctor, or Car, or Career, or heaven forfend: Reading. We don't want our little ones to get silly ideas into their heads. The right social conditioning from as early as possible will present the world with compliant, self absorbed, distressed, depressed and anorexic teenagers who are all the more willing to spend, spend, spend on hopeless diet cures, makeup, hidden, guilt ridden chocolate (one of the special words placed here!) and anti-depressants which will really make life worth living."

As an example of how cradle-to-grave gender-based marketing works, you couldn’t ask for better. They do indeed prep young girls for a lifetime of fretting and preening. Boys, meanwhile, get scooters and aeroplanes and adventures. These magnets are the modern embodiment of the nineteenth century nursery rhyme "What are Little Boys Made Of?” ("slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails"), except now it’s 2013, and many parents will not have this shit anymore. Products such as this are insulting to both genders. Depressingly, just as many parents continue to unthinkingly buy into this narrative: that little boys play with dinosaurs and dirt while little girls love ballet and bunnies, and while it may seem like stating the obvious to say that no child emerges from their mother’s womb with an immediate preference for blue over pink, or guns over fairies (despite what A A Gill appears to have argued earlier this year (£)), and that much of this is down to socialisation, it is still something that needs to be said. And yet, adverts such as a recent one for the Disney store which says "join our princess and pirates academy" still imply that kids’ roles are clearly delineated. Deviate at your peril.

Any parent with a little boy who likes being the princess, not the pirate, and a little girl who likes drawing maps and hunting for lost treasure knows that messages such as this are pure, unadulterated bollocks. As children, both of us were just as into power rangers, dinosaurs, mud pies, ghosts and wizards as we were into fairies and tiaras (if not more so). We’re not saying that it’s bad to let your daughter dress up as a princess if that is what she wants, but that she be given the option. Why shouldn’t she be a pirate, and play with conkers, and have adventures too? Perhaps what’s most depressing about the fridge magnets is how active the boys’ ones are (climbing, running, swinging), and how passive the girls’, whose only doing word is "cooking". Much like that bloody Guardian article, which suggested that you teach your daughter maths through the medium of baking, these magnets show that pre-school gender stereotyping is alive and well.

The nature of the words used also raises several points about gendered language. An editor once told us the differences that she sees in male and female copy. In her experience, while male columnists will assert their opinion as fact – "the coalition government is flailing" – female columnists will tend to cloak their argument in qualifying statements - "I think that", "it seems that", "it could be argued that". Women are still taught not to assert themselves, not to stick their necks out, not to be opinionated, and, while a set of kid’s fridge magnets may not seem like a big deal to some, they bear out this idea of women being passive, compliant creatures, something which can have real repercussions into adulthood. Many of the women who submit entries to projects such as Everyday Sexism detailing sexual harassment, groping and assault have only just realised that they have had some sexism done to them, because for far too long, the message has been "don’t make a fuss", "don’t assert yourself", even if someone has undermined your bodily autonomy in the most horrific of ways. That more and more women are sharing their experiences and realising that they can stand up and fight back is heartening, but more needs to be done to encourage women to come forward and say "this is bullshit’.

Another nauseating aspect is the cutesy nature of the lingo the magnets use. "Furry", "fluff", "sherbet" – words saccharine to the point of being vomit-inducing. For a company which aims to promote literacy, words such as this certainly aren’t doing much to foster a new generation of erudite women who are masters of the English language. Perhaps they represent a training exercise for the women’s mag journalists of the future, whose squeals of "OMG! WANT!" and "OBSESSION: SCATTER CUSHIONS" permeate the pages of the glossies, making adult women sound like Honey Boo Boo on speed and showing that baby talk isn’t just reserved for those in nappies. This dumbing down of language isn’t unique to women’s magazines – as the regularly peddled out stat about the Sun being tailored to a reading age of ten shows – but within their (s)hallowed pages the copy takes on a creepily infantilistic tone.

There is a myth that women use three times as many words as men in any given day (or similar - the number varies constantly), something which is hard to believe with learning tools such as this. The words we use and the way we use them tell us much about the state of gender equality today – from how we’re told to talk about our bodies (who can forget "woo-hoo for my froo-froo"?) to the power relations in our relationships ("daddy’s little princess" "all my bitches and my hos"). Language is one the most important tools that we have, and when our voices aren’t being muffled, they’re being steeped in a sexist agenda that can be so subtle that we’re all too often unaware of the implications. It’s time we ditched the hairbands, the hearts and the handbags and taught our daughters how to say "fuck off", once and for all. 

The two sets of fridge magnets that apportion rigid gender roles to children. Photograph: @talkingdoggenre on Twitter

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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The BBC's Question Time shows how narrow our establishment really is

 35 per cent of all panellists in the show's history attended Oxford or Cambridge.

In February the Sutton Trust published a report digging into the backgrounds of professionals across a wide range of industries and the findings pointed to one unambiguous conclusion: in the upper echelons of society, the privileged still dominate, with wildly disproportionate numbers attending private schools and Oxford or Cambridge University.

But how does this actually manifest itself? We have spent some time crunching the data on what we think is an indicative snapshot of the establishment: the BBC’s Question Time.

Each week, David Dimbleby is joined by politicians, journalists and other opinion formers, who together represent the spectrum of opinions it is acceptable to have in public life. Looking at this pool of people is better than analysing something as narrow as, say, Members of Parliament because it encompasses a wider subset of people who make up the ‘establishment’ - politicians, journalists, activists, business leaders and cultural figures too. But is this establishment truly representative? Does the panel truly reflect Britain at large?

The short answer is “no”.

And this is clear simply by looking at the gender split on the panel: Throughout the show’s history only 35 per cent of panellists have been women - though of the shows broadcast in 2015, this rose to a slightly less dire 42 per cent. And when women have appeared on the programme, producers have been drawing from a smaller pool - with women more likely to put in repeat performances. Shirley Williams is the most ubiquitous panellist, having put in 55 appearances on the show.

But the real meat of our digging comes from research into universities.

To find this out, we took the data on appearances on the show since it began in 1979, and matched each panellist with the universities they attended. For the approximately 1500 panellists, we relied on publicly available information, and we were able to find data on around 85 per cent of panellists. Some of the data we used will almost certainly contain errors - but we’re broadly confident that our findings hold up. Even if the following numbers are not precise, they certainly represent the magnitude of the figures involved.

In an echo of the Sutton Trust’s findings, Oxford and Cambridge are massively over-represented. 35 per cent of all panellists since 1979 attended Oxbridge - and if you count it by the number of appearances, as a measure of who is sat around the panel on each show, 42 per cent of the seats in the show’s history have been occupied by Oxbridge graduates (and this doesn’t count Christ Church, Oxford, alumnus David Dimbleby, nor his Oxford predecessors Robin Day or Peter Sissons in the host’s seat).

Graduates of “Post-92” institutions, the so-called “New Universities” make up just 3 per cent of panellists.

93 per cent of every episode of Question Time ever broadcast have included an Oxbridge graduate. And amazingly, this got worse in 2015, where not a single episode was broadcast without Oxbridge representation. Our hypothesis is that any attempts at positive discrimination are cancelled out by the professionalisation of the political classes, as many non-university attendees early in the show’s history were people from a trade union background. One trend over the course of the show is the decline in the number of guests who haven’t been to university at all (and yes, that’s despite Nigel Farage appearing what feels like almost every damn week).

Of the top 20 most recurring panellists, half went to Oxbridge. By comparison, less than 1 per cent of the UK population went to Oxford or Cambridge.

Measuring which institutions get the most graduates onto Question Time also enables us to build a new league table. The best represented institution over the show’s history is women-only Newnham College, Cambridge - with graduates like Diane Abbott, Patricia Hewitt and Mary Beard, 76 of its alumnae have made it on to the Question Time stage.

What’s particularly amazing about this is that Newnham only takes on about 500 students per year. Second in the list is the LSE - with 54 different alumni appearances. And this is despite LSE taking in 10,000 new students every year. The best-represented post-92 institution is Middlesex University, with just 5 panellists over 36 years, despite taking on 23,000 students every year.

This makes for distressing reading - not least because both of us attended post-92 institutions. Was our hard work for nothing? Does Question Time suggest that the gates to the establishment forever remain firmly bolted shut to us?

To be clear, we don’t entirely blame BBC for these findings - nor would we want these figures to be used to make foolish allegations about “BBC bias”. The BBC is more worried about party political representation - and as our findings make clear, the producers of Question Time are clearly drawing from a pool of people who are already overwhelmingly dominated by Oxbridge.

Whether Oxbridge’s dominance is a symptom or a cause is up for debate. Looking at a year-by-year comparison since 1979, what’s most striking is how little has changed. Though we like to believe that society is more progressive now than it was in the dark old days, Oxford and Cambridge still dominate the upper echelons of public life.

More than 1500 panellists have appeared on Question Time over the last 36 years. They were selected due to their role in forming or reflecting the opinions held by the nation on some of the most important issues we have and will face. Is it really right that the less than 1 per cent of the population who attended Oxford or Cambridge Universities should have such a loud voice?

James O’Malley tweets as @Psythor, Blakeley Nixon tweets as @BlakeleyNixon.