/ Parenting, Shopping

Boots bins ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ signs for toys in-store

Picture of girl on phone and boy with toy plane

Following a surge of complaints on Facebook and Twitter, high-street pharmacy Boots has said it was wrong to separate its toys for ‘boys’ and ‘girls. Should other brands follow suit?

Previously in Boots stores, anyone shopping for a toy would find themselves faced with two options – to shop in the ‘girls’ section or the ‘boys’ section. And what is the difference, you might ask?

In this case, the most telling difference was that Boots put its Science Museum-branded range of toys in the ‘boys’ section. This was a particularly disappointing from a company that regularly hires female scientists. After all, what better way to suggest to young girls that only boys can be scientists?

Sexism and shopping

When a discerning shopper noticed this troublesome segregation, they quickly took to Twitter and Facebook. A string of disappointed people followed suit and contacted Boots to complain.

Initially, Boots defended itself by saying it was simply responding to customer feedback and was trying to make its stores more navigable. But later, Boots admitted it was the wrong thing to do and actively made a change by removing the signs.

I for one am pleased that Boots made this decision, although I’m sad to see this kind of sign-posting occurring so often. And despite this positive action, it won’t do anything to prevent the way the toys themselves are marketed towards boys and girls. I’m also disappointed that Boots hasn’t extended these changes to its website, where toys are still grouped by gender ‘to make it as easy as possible for customers to find what they are looking for’.

Still, the big question is – do morals come above marketing?

Let’s stamp out stereotyping

I’m willing to believe that the gender-focused marketing of toys for boys and girls works very well. I also believe that many people still find the segregation of toys into ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ helpful when shopping for children. So I can see that some people might not like Boots’ latest decision, and Boots itself may even see a fall in revenue. So, should we expect businesses to do the right thing?

In my opinion, I think it’s vital that retailers take these important steps towards gender-neutral marketing. And in my ideal word, I think it should be their obligation – not just a voluntary show of corporate responsibility.

Despite societal advancements, today’s children are still bombarded relentlessly with images and ideas of what men and women should be. Although it’s just one small step, this change from Boots puts out a strong message that this type of gender stereotyping isn’t OK anymore.


I hope Boots have now set an example for other retailers. I agree with Jen, the gender stereotypes have to be removed from websites as well as high street stores.

If you know the child you’re buying a gift for, you should know what sort of toys they like. It doesn’t make it easier to split the toys into ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’.

I know I will get alot of stick for this……..But in truth I really don’t see anything wrong with having boys and girls toys being separate.

When I was watching this on BBC Watchdog last night I really did think it was a joke at first.

Maybe it’s just all going over my head lol

I used to work at a leading supermarket and we had a “boys” “girls” and “both” section. I admit we didn’t brand it as such, but we did set it out like that.

When people think about dolls you would just think girls, and like cars you would think boys.

Come to think of it, when we see a little girls playing with “boys” toys we even call them tomboys don’t we? It’s just the way of the world!

(tomboys – A tomboy is a girl who exhibits characteristics or behaviors considered typical of the gender role of a boy, engaging in games and activities that are physical in nature, and which are considered in many cultures to be the domain of boys)

Chris M says:
3 May 2013

Thanks for commenting Lee, and glad there are different views here, otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a discussion. I don’t think you should get stick for saying what you think.

The thing that gets me is that we decide which toys go in the girls’ section based on what we associate with girls, as you say. But I think we associate dolls with girls *because* we have seen them in the girls’ section. So it’s a vicious circle.

Now that doesn’t sound like it should matter that much, but if we (kids and adults) get taught (by retailers and others) that looking after kids and doing housework is for women, and science is for men, that leads to a very unfair society.

It’s funny because we say ‘car toys are for boys … oh and tomboys’ – so we’re admitting that girls can like cars. We could equally say ‘cars are for gingers … oh and wannabe-gingers’. Seriously! If we did that, it might take 50 years, but eventually gingers would naturally buy more car toys and some would become rubbish mechanics (I would). And there would be lots of non-gingers who could have been excellent mechanics but end up doing something they don’t enjoy as much.

So why don’t we just have a section for car toys for kids who like cars, and a section for science toys for kids who like science etc. Girls wouldn’t feel ‘bad’ for wanting pirates, and boys wouldn’t feel ‘bad’ for wanting dolls. It would be *easier* for everyone to find the toys they want, instead of having to look through pirates and guns to find cars which means happy kids, happy parents, happy supermarkets!

Jess says:
2 May 2013

Toys are fun. Why do shops feel the need to bossily tell us who is supposed to play with them? I hate this gender-based marketing. It’s much worse than when I was a child, when no-one seemed to think it odd that our house (4 girls) was full of cars and trains and dolls and craft materials. Including lots of colours other than pink. My son and daughter play, together, with all their toys, but the gifts they are given seem to assume that they inhabit completely different worlds (One of which contains only the colour pink.) Play is how children learn about the world and try things out, so it’s important that they get to try a lot of different things – from caring role play through to whizzing and crashing vehicles. And why would a retailer want to tell a child ‘Think this looks fun? It isn’t for you’? Customers can perfectly well find a doll in a section labelled ‘dolls’ as in a section labelled ‘girls’. These signs are stupid, and I’m glad Boots are taking theirs down. Others should do the same.

Jess says:
2 May 2013

Lee – thanks for the explanation of the word ‘tomboy’. I was happy to call myself one 30 years ago, but to be honest, I haven’t heard the word for years. I think these days we just call them girls.

Good move by Boots. Yesterday I noticed that our local big Tesco has a Boys Toys aisle. I couldn’t see anything there that a girl wouldn’t enjoy or might want for her birthday. I’ve never really understood why, in these more enlightened times, the differentiation in clothing for infants through to eight year olds remains as fixed as it always has been, not just in colour. I get the impression that parents and relatives see young girls as little more than dollies they can dress and style, with longer and curlier hair and prettier clothes. Perhaps young boys rebel against any attempt to homogenise them but some might prefer the feminine look. And why not? For most people there does come a point at which there are merits in being able to tell one sex from another I suppose, but it’s not not really necessary in the nursery these days.

Anon the mouse says:
3 May 2013

The general range of clothes between boys and girls is similarly huge. There is usually 1 Aisle per age range of girls clothes vs 1 Aisle for everything for boys.

Retail categorisation is perverse. In a bookshop today I saw that a biography of Margaret Thatcher was in the True Crimes section. Going a bit far I feel.

Anon the mouse says:
3 May 2013

Many shops push a gendered seperation of toys when none really exists until children are repeatedly told to play along Heteronormative gender lines. The truth is kids will only play with toys they like, if they are repeatedly told not to play with a certain toy then they will, but when the parent is unaware.

Lego’s range is the worst toy range for gender seperation, there is a definite divide between boys (traditional lego men and women and 80% standard blocks) and girls (Overly tall lego women and 80% specific purpose blocks). My girls want to play normal lego, not the fashionista, with only pink blocks variety.

I have two daughters, one loves peppa pig, Spiderman and Lego. The other Hello Kitty, computers and Lego. We have been tutted and stared at when they pick the toys they want from the “boys” section.

It is ridiculous that shops should decide what sort of toys are suitable for boys and girls. Thank goodness some parents have more sense.

I loved seeing my nieces playing with cars, fire engines and helicopters and seeing the unisex wish list for Birthdays and Christmas. They grew up to have a lively interest in cars. My nephew however only wanted to play with a doll and pram until he was about three years old. It was lovely watching him train for fatherhood.

Now sexism is in full force when it relates to trouser lengths for men and women in our clothing retailers. In M&S for instance, the mens trouser length is displayed clearly in inches when ordering an item. For women, you have to hunt down the actual length as they categorise the length as short, medium, regular and long. I contacted them today via their website and they suggested I send an email querying the actual length in inches. I get so annoyed at having to jump through hoops for something like this. If the length is not right, we have to spend £10 on having them shortened.

Male and female react to “life” differently. That’s not sexist, just the way it is. You get extremes -macho and feminist- and you get those who almost meet in the middle. Eves-drop on playground conversations and one finds different emphases, different desires and different reactions to what’s being said. Look in the playground at the items carried around and, apart form the ubiquitous mobile (which each sex chooses/ uses differently), there are boys items and girls items. Ask any of them if they feel “stereotyped” and they’d laugh at you. You can have girls toys and boys toys and, if one wants to play with the other that’s o.k. too. The manufacturers have worked out what appeals and they wouldn’t produce different types of toys if they didn’t sell. Look in shops like “The Early Learning Centre” and one finds most very early toys are unisex, concentrating on concept building, spacial awareness and making sense of how things move and work. Parents can choose blue or pink if they wish, the child won’t suffer either way. Hopefully, parents will give their children a balanced upbringing and, if they do, the choice of toy shouldn’t be an issue.

I was amazed when I popped into a Toys”R”Us store in North America, just to see what was on sale there compared to the UK and look for a few souveniers.

Boys’ sections coloured (or should that be colored?) bright blue and Girls’ sections coloured lurid pink, with the obvious divide of toys. Cars and guns for the boys, dolls and cute animals for the girls.

I felt I must be dreaming, but visit http://www.toysrus.com to see for yourselves. Boys’ toys include “Action Figures” and “Vehicles”, whereas Girls’ toys include “Bath, Beauty” and “Dolls”.


It’s a pity we (some) have become so “politically correct” that they worry about something as trivial as this. Parents (and others) can decide what to buy their children, of course they can – but guidance in a large store can be helpful. It doesn’t mean they are stereotyping. Far more important political things to worry about than kids toys.

Jess says:
10 May 2013

The Royal Society of Chemistry has weighed in – they obviously don’t think it’s trivial that some retailers tell children explicitly that science is for boys.

Says the President, Professor Yellowlees: “I had a chemistry set when I was wee and I loved trying things like using the methylated spirit burner, dissolving things and experiments. It kept my interest in chemistry going. It’s exciting and great fun.”

“Labelling toys is simply appalling. There should be no toys labelled for either gender and, for the record, I never wanted a doll!”


Jennifer, I don’t suppose Boots meant that science toys were only for boys. It is this inference that behind this is some ulterior motive. To suggest that this contributes to girls not going into science is ludicrous – parents would have the common sense to buy what they want for their children. It is all too easy to make an issue out of an innocent action – this is an unfortunate attitude.

I would like to think you are right, Malcolm, but there is no doubt that marketing works – however ridiculous it may seem. Peer pressure works too, affecting both kids choices and those of their parents.

wavechange – I don’t see this as pushy marketing – simply trying to be helpful in guiding you in-store. a bit like having boys and girls clothes sections, young age and older age toys. No one, I imagine, is trying to impose a particular type of toy on you.

I agree with the peer pressure comment – but that is people making their own choice, not having a store impose a choice on them. We are responsible for our own choices, and whilst Boots could maybe have foreseen the reaction from some quarters, I just don’t see the appalled outrage as at all in proportion.

Incidentally, at Christmas many stores and websites group presents under “for him”, “for her” and so on. Should we get worked up over this?


Good point about segregation of products for adults. I cannot argue with that.

With kids, I genuinely believe that gender-focused marketing does affect whether school-leavers go into science. I worked in biological sciences, which had more females than males (the latter predominating in maths/physics/chemistry). Some of the women students very obviously lacked confidence when presented with equipment. Had they spent more time playing with the sort of toys that we tend to give to boys, I’m sure they would have been better prepared.