Nothing makes me cringe quite like “Lovely Lola”. I have told the story countless times when I first encountered “Lola” while shopping with my then 9-year-old my daughter, sitting on a shelf in a crop top, high heels and make up. It still makes me angry. I thought there is not one parent that wants their daughter to look, act or be called “Lovely Lola.”
As angry as I was, Lola inspired me to create change and shatter stereotypes in the toy industry and seven years ago I launched the Go! Go! Sports Girl line; a collection of plush sports-themed dolls and books to encourage healthy and active play over fashion and body image. Girls are strong, smart and adventurous and it is important to emphasize what a girl’s body can do versus what her body looks like.
Going against stereotypes is never easy. Change has been slow and many toy store buyers have told me, “I love your product, but it’ll never sell because it is not mainstream. It’s not a fashion doll and girls like fashion.” As a woman and a mother of a daughter I am positive girls like more than fashion. I also know mainstream ideas never create change and I am creating change.
The ultimate validation to my hard work and mission, which is shared by the Go! Go! Sports Girl author, Kara Douglass Thom, was an invitation to both of us to participate at a conference at The White House on ‘Helping Children Explore, Learn, and Dream Without Limits: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys’. The conference, hosted by The White House Council on Women and Girls, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California on April 6, 2016, brought together roughly 150 educators, researchers, retailers, business and media members to discuss how to meet this challenge.
From The White House factsheet: ‘Research shows that children’s interests, ambitions, and skills can be shaped early on by the media they consume and the toys with which they play, potentially influencing everything from the subjects they choose to study to the careers they ultimately pursue.’ For example, there are currently over 600,000 unfilled jobs in information technology alone, yet 29 percent of STEM jobs are held by women. Also, across America, communities are experiencing teacher shortages, yet fewer than 25 percent of public school teachers are men. Nursing is one of the fastest-growing professions, yet only 9 percent are men.
We need to close the gender gaps in our workforce by exposing children to diverse role models. Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, Sociologist and Lecturer at California State University Sacramento and University of Southern California, Davis said, ‘You don’t have to believe in stereotypes for them to affect you.’ Her studies find that toys are more divided by gender now than they were 50 years ago. Currently toys marketed to girls are associated with attractiveness and toys marketed to boys are associated with violence and danger. By exposing children to toys, media and role models beyond gender stereotypes, we offer them the opportunity to develop their talents and pursue their passions without limits. The saying, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is true. We need to give our children more to see.
What Kara and I have been doing for seven years is giving girls options beyond stereotypes that don’t pigeonhole them into thinking they need to be a princess and wear a pink dress and tiara. Girls need to break free from the stereotypes that are holding them back and so do our boys. Girls need encouragement to embrace their strength and assertiveness as much as boys need validation to be vulnerable and nurturing. This was a clear message throughout the conference.
As parents and consumers, we have a lot of power! We can make this change happen. Talk to your children about gender stereotypes. Point them out and encourage them to ask questions. Kids are pretty savvy and have an innate sense of fairness. And use your purchasing power. If you don’t want a product for your child or in your house, don’t buy it. This will send a strong message to retailers and manufacturers.
Kara and I know we are providing a much-needed choice in the toy and book marketplace, one that is age-appropriate, represents the way girls really live, and highlights what her body can do rather than what it looks like. But to be recognized as a leader by the White House was validating. We know girls play sports and so should their dolls and the characters in their media. We left the White House knowing the highest level of government has our back.