Do we teach workplace gender segregation with toys?

Over 500 of Britain’s largest corporations have recently published the percentage pay gap that exists between men and women within their companies, with the caveat - mainly from those with the most gaping disparities - that men and women are paid the same wage for the same work, and any disparity that exists within their company is simply due to women being in the lower-paid roles.

So why, then, are men and women apparently doing different work in the first place? And, more to the point, why are women ‘choosing’ the lower paid jobs within these companies?

This whole discussion reminds me of two stories I heard recently. One was just before Christmas, when a colleague recalled how every December as a child, she had asked for the same sort of toys her three brothers always received - Legos, action toys, toys which she deemed “interesting,” with moving parts. Every year, she was told that there was no “girls’ Lego,” and so she would invariably be given dolls and colouring books.

Whether this lack of variety hindered her prospects or stunted her ambitions is difficult to say. Perhaps not, as her three brothers were likely something of a blessing: she admitted to simply playing with their toys instead as soon as she became (quickly) bored with her own. Things may have turned out differently had she had three sisters. Presumably the boys of the family, too, were also not encouraged to develop their full spectrum of skills, if toys seen as nurturing or artistic in nature were deemed as feminine.

Another story is one my mother remembers from when she worked in London as a teacher. Her colleague, a teaching assistant from Dublin, once told her how she’d asked for a doctor’s set for Christmas - but when the day came and she opened up her gift, it was a nurse’s set. She tried to hide her disappointment, but this early check on her ambitions because of her gender was a memory that stayed with her for life. 

These stories come from two generations of women, yet both make up part of the current adult workforce, and both are represented somewhere in those statistics. So to what extent can we really say that women have freely gravitated towards and voluntarily chosen lower paid roles within the same industry? How much impact do the toys children are given and the interests they’re encouraged to pursue have on their future ambitions and career choices? Whilst this is not all of the story, nevertheless, the current statistics suggest quite a lot.

January 06, 2018 by Catherine Stowell

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