Girl climbing a tree

Do children even notice stereotypes?

At not only pink and blue we are often told that stereotypes are not important because they are no longer an issue and that even if they are there they don’t make any difference. We are told that girls and boys can simply choose the toys they want to play with, what clothes they want to wear and which books to read. And even if the stereotypes are around them at a young age, by the time children are young adults they are able to make their own choices and go against the stereotypes they learnt as babies, toddlers and children.

This is an adult view, one that is not ‘in the moment’, and importantly one that has the benefit of confidence that comes with experience. Surely we should be asking children and young adults what they think?

Companies should take responsibility for ending the use of gender stereotypes

Every year Girlguiding conducts a UK survey to understand the changing attitudes of girls aged 7 – 21 years. They ask 2,000 girls and young women how they feel about their everyday lives including their views on education, sport, toys, stereotypes and the 2020 results have just been published.

Overall “the data shows clear majority views on what girls want to see change. They want a society where the media reflects diversity, that celebrates women and girls for who they are and not how they look, where companies take responsibility for ending the use of outdated and damaging gender stereotypes”. [1]

These girls and young women are intelligent, perceptive and very clear in their views, there are also some positive findings – they care about the environment, are aware of fast fashion and how detrimental it can be and want there to be more opportunities for young people to be involved in politics so that they can help  shape the future of the country.

Encouraging girls and boys to play with different toys can have a negative effect

But there are also some very worrying findings, ones that demonstrate that girls and young women are aware of the influence that the world has on them, and the expectations on how they are ‘meant’ to behave.   They know that what they are exposed to is reinforcing gender stereotypes and limiting what they feel comfortable doing. They are agreed that encouraging girls and boys to play with different toys can have a negative effect. “Almost three in five (58%) girls and young women aged 11 to 21 say this encourages people to think that gender stereotypes are true.” [1]

These stereotypes feed into a certain view of girls with “more than two in five (44%) aged 11 to 21 saying they have been patronised or made to feel stupid because they are a girl.” This then places limitations on them as  “(41%) think there are still certain subjects or careers people expect them to do because they’re a girl.” [1] This implies that brilliance bias in boys is still prevalent from a young age and that stereotypical job roles are still being ingrained in young people.

Worryingly the perception of having to be ‘pretty’ or ‘good looking’ is deterring girls from enjoyment and participation in sport, with “a third (32%) of girls aged 7 to 21 [saying they] are turned off sport by the way the media shows women athletes, including how they look instead of their talents. “ [1]

‘I want to stop being told I can’t do things because I’m a girl.’ Girl age 7

We have to ask the question, how are we still here in 2020? Although in a world where there are more FTSE CEOs with the first name John than FTSE CEOs who are female, is it any surprise that a 7 year old says “I want to stop being told I can’t do things because I’m a girl”.

It’s also depressing but again unsurprising that 28% of girls aged 11 – 16 avoid speaking out for “fear of being picked on or harassed”. Worryingly this percentage increases to 50% for girls aged 17 – 21. There is also a wider challenge with these percentages increasing again for girls from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds.

How can we shape society if girls from all backgrounds are scared to share their valuable contributions, thoughts and insights?

Perhaps the view that young people don’t notice stereotypes is actually because we are not giving them the chance to tell us.

We must therefore look at whether we are doing enough to create a society where there is equality of opportunity.

De-coding the world around us.

Not only pink and blue was started because we need to focus on babies, toddlers and children. As they decode the world, we need to fill it with possibilities not limitations, all colours for all children, awareness of the language we use, books that are full of diverse role models and toys that expand all children’s imaginations. We need to make sure that all children know that the defining characteristic about them is not that they are a boy or a girl – or any other stereotypical trope but that can create a box around their aspirations.

The last few months have made it clear that women still tend to pick up the additional load of caring responsibilities and house-hold chores. This is because by the time we are adults these stereotypes are pervasive and ingrained. So, we need to do more to make sure that girls and boys are not taught these stereotypes from a young age otherwise we are simply perpetuating the cycle.

We haven’t seen an equivalent study for boys, but we would like to. Because if the girls are aware then so too are boys. From a young age they will also be aware of the limitations and expectations placed on them.

Awareness and action is key

We need to be aware that this issue is not going away. For those who don’t believe it then surely girls and young women telling us should be enough. Now we need action, to challenge the stereotypes, look at our language, the way we shop for children, what we encourage them to do, and yes the colours we put in front of them.

Creating choice and possibilities for children must be the way forward. And it is something that is reliant on all of us adults to make that change.


[1] Girl’s Attitudes Survey 2020, Girl Guiding UK

You can read the full study from Girl Guiding UK here.

If you want to read more about not only pink and blue and how these stereotypes become so pervasive; you can read more on our About Us page.


Photo credit: Amber Faust on Unsplash

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