Hamleys is a large toyshop in central London. I went in there with the intention of buying a present for my niece, only to be shocked at the entrance when I saw the store layout sign.
Inside, toys are segregated by gender and are even allocated separate floors.
As I climbed the escalator and entered the floors themselves, I was even more horrified.
The girls’ floor is pink. It is filled with fluffy objects, beauty and hair-related toys and play cookery sets. There is even a beauty salon called ‘Tantrum’.
The boys’ floor is all about action and adventure. There are cars, trains, spaceships, science sets and construction toys.
We have a severe lack of women in senior positions in our society and a severe problem of inequality. Only 22 percent of UK parliamentarians are female. A survey of Britain’s top 100 companies find that, of 329 executive directors, only 20 are women. In the media Guardian top 100 this year – the most powerful people in the industry – the first woman is at number 18.
Despite laws and measures to introduce gender equality of rights and opportunities in our society, there is still a gaping gap between the actual proportions of men and women in our leadership positions today.
There are many contributing factors, and one is conditioning of children from an early age. Deep-rooted in our society are stereotypes that dictate to women and men and influence them on the roles in society that they are expected to fill.
There is an underlying current of expectation, tradition and what is accepted as the norm, and it sets down different paths for different genders which often becomes a reality.
The toys that children are exposed to play a major part in this. From birth, boys and girls are bombarded with stereotypes; boys are allowed to be more aggressive and climb trees, while girls are encouraged to be passive and play with plastic teapots.
Even the name that Hamleys uses for its beauty salon, ‘Tantrum’, is consistent with the stereotypical ‘hysterical’ woman - unsuited to leadership and far better aligned with the domestic role and fussing over home and appearance.
A commonly held view is that boys and girls are innately suited to these traditional stereotypical roles. But the scientific evidence for this is not substantial, comprehensive or conclusive enough, and there is more evidence that experience itself changes brain function. I've written about this here and here.
Consider a shop that had different floors and different toys for black and white children. There would be an outcry.
We are seeing our very own gender apartheid on our high street.
Hamleys – as a major toy seller – has the potential to be of huge influence.
My request to Hamleys is that it signposts its toys by some other means – for example, what the toys are, rather than who Hamleys assumes they are for.
Marks & Spencer is now listing astronomy toys in both girls and boys sections, thanks to a blog on the f word and @scottkeir on Twitter.
Can Hamleys follow suit so that girls and boys are free to choose what toys are best matched to their individual interests and potential rather than a pre-conditioned and artificial notion of what the different genders should aspire to? So that they don't feel pressurised to follow paths that confine them to the unequal positions in life we see around us?
I won’t be shopping in there for my niece unless they listen. Please spread the word.