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16 February 2017

No, Early Learning Centre, little girls don’t need “rescuing“ by scientist boys

Just as toys are becoming less gendered, one shop drops a clanger. 

By Chi Onwurah

What were they thinking of? Two little girls desperate to go to the ball, a clumsy ballerina in pink recovering from a fall, all rescued by a young male trio of a superhero, wizard and doctor on call. How could anyone see that and it not scream “gender stereotyping”? And especially if the name of your company is Early Learning – shouldn’t you have learnt that by now?

Many of the parents who received the Early Learning Centre’s promotional email were better informed. Indeed, today’s hyper-marketised childhood means it is part of the daily battle of being a parent. When I saw the email, my disbelief quickly turned to anger – anger at how this company is imposing its view of childhood on children. “So it’s now the Early Limiting Centre – limiting children’s imagination & choices & our future skills and economic potential,” I tweeted.

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I often say that Parliament is the most diverse place I’ve ever worked in. That surprises people. Our representative body is not known for its representativeness. But before entering politics, I spent 23 years working as a chartered engineer in the tech sector. As a black woman engineer, I was always very much in the minority. And the frustrating thing was that, during my entire engineering career, I could see it wasn’t getting any better. When I graduated from Imperial College women made up 12 per cent of engineering students. That figure has not changed in 30 years. Is it any wonder when we have leading toy companies telling our potential engineers and scientists that their future is princess pink?

Little girls grow up in a world where engineers are not women, and women are not engineers. Those who build, explore, develop are boys. Even when toys aimed at girls dare to step beyond the realm of fairies and ballerinas, they are painted pink and dipped in glitter. Then – only then – are they safe to be marketed as the “girl version”. Obviously Engineering Barbie couldn’t possibly use her Stem skills to tackle the great world problems of today – she must fix her pink domestic appliances. And who can forget the Natural History Museum and M&S and their “just for boys” dinosaur t-shirt range. It’s no wonder many suffer from what I call “Marie Curie Syndrome” – the inability to name more than one woman scientist (or in 54 per cent of cases, even one women scientist).

I came into Parliament determined that another generation of women engineers and scientists wouldn’t have to spend their professional lives as exceptions. I’m pleased to see the impact of gender stereotyping gaining greater recognition, thanks to campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys and Pink Stinks. Back in 2012, a constituent complained to me that our local Boots store separated toys into “Boys” and “Girls” sections. Not only were the “girl versions” of toys given gender cues such as pink packaging, but they were physically segregated from the “boy versions”, removing any risk of girls being accidently contaminated by “non-girly” toys. I led a debate in Parliament on gender specific marketing where I pointed out that even after two decades in tech “it is only when I walk into a toy shop that I feel I am really experiencing gender segregation”.

And that has changed. Recently Let Toys Be Toys  found such signs to have “effectively disappeared from the British high streets & supermarkets”.

But as we can see from the Early Learning Centre example, gender stereotyping is still with us. Perhaps this is because, as I pointed out in my speech, every successful marketeer knows that differentiation makes for greater profit margins. The impact of this “clever” marketing when combined with cultural norms is that barriers to Stem careers are erected that only a few girls overcome. That has broad social and economic consequences. Part of the gender pay gap can be traced to women being excluded from well-paid tech jobs. Meanwhile, boys are barred from “caring” professions. And it makes our whole economy smaller and less resilient.

Diverse companies are more profitable and more resilient. Research by McKinsey shows that companies across all sectors with women on their boards of directors significantly outperform those with no female representation. And when we have a massive technical skills shortage, why on earth would you miss out on the talent of half your population? Especially with a hard Brexit on the horizon.

That is why diversity is at the heart of Labour’s industrial strategy. Unlike the government’s green paper which does not mention it once, Labour recognises that diversity is not a nice to have, it is an economic imperative. And the Early Learning Centre would do well to recognise that too.