What I learned from Facebook this month. Or: Computers are for boys, vacuum cleaners are for girls.

Last week was interesting to say the least.

My wife made a posting on Bilka’s (a Danish big-box store) Facebook site complaining that they had a display where Boys’ Toys and Girls’ Toys were displayed – computers and cars for the boys, vacuum cleaners and play dish sets for the girls. (see here for the original posting). The original photo is below.

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 12.24.36 PM

Her comment on the site was two-fold. Firstly, that there was no need to display segregated toys, categorising them specifically for girls or boys. The second, more important issue was the message that computers are for boys and vacuum cleaners are for girls.

Her complaint makes sense to me. It certainly doesn’t take a degree in developmental psychology to realise that children learn from the world around them. And when, from a very early age, the world says “this is for you, and that is not”, you have some serious imprinting to overcome if you want to disagree. I work in what is best classified as an engineering department, and women are few and far between in the building I work in. Why is that? Is it because girls and women are not good at math by nature, or is it because they are taught from a very early age (even in a modern, first-world society) that computers are not for them? Personally, I am more likely to believe that it’s the latter – that gender roles are learned in childhood during playtime. It seems that I might not be alone in this opinion.

Personally, I would much rather see our sons playing with dolls and kitchen sets than shooting each other with toy guns. They’ll be better prepared for adulthood if they pretend to bake than kill. And I can’t understand why Lego has to make pink and purple “Friends” sets to appeal to “the other 50 percent of the world’s children.”

However, what was truly amazing was the response that ensued from other people on the Facebook page. These responses can be divided into five basic categories, which I’ve listed below with examples.:

 Typical Response #1: Relax! – i.e. “Hold nu op…. find noget vigtigere at gå op i…. suk” (trans: “Come on… Find something more important to get upset about. Sigh.”)

Typical Response #2: I don’t get it. i.e. “Undskyld men hvad er problemet her?” (trans: “Sorry, but what is the problem here?”)

Typical Response #3: Heading not required. i.e. “Hahahahahahahahahaha!!!” (trans: “Hahahahahahahahahaha!!!”)

Typical Response #4: I’m a raving misogynist who still lives in the 1950’s. i.e. “Kvinder og teknik er som pindsvin og trafik! Hold jer til støvsugeren.” (trans: “Women and technical things are like hedgehogs and traffic! Stick with your vacuum cleaner.”) or “Går også ind for ligestilling bare i kvinder bliver ind i køkkenet og holder kæft ha ha” (trans: “I’m also for equality as long as women stay in the kitchen and shut up ha ha”)

Typical Response #5: I agree! i.e. “Rigtig god pointe! Cassia. Bilka, for pokker! Vi skriver 2013 – ikke 1953!!!” (trans: “Really good point, Cassia. For goodness’ sake, Bilka! This is 2013, not 1953!!! “)

The Typical Response #1 group may be considered to have a point. In a world where people are dying of hunger and war, a toy display in a big box store in Denmark is not the most pressing matter on the face of the earth. Fair enough. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not a problem that should not be addressed. Also, it doesn’t take much to either NOT put signs up that say “These are for boys” and “These are for girls” (in fact, it’s cheaper for the store to not put up the signs). Or, if you really think that the signs should be there (one line of reasoning was that the labelling was beneficial for grandparents who are shopping for presents), then just distribute the toys with some sense of equality – put a computer on the girls’ shelf as well.

The Typical Response #2 group was comprised primarily of men, although there were some women there as well. They were also in the “it’s helpful for grandparents” camp (just how dumb are grandparents in Denmark, anyway?). The typical argument here was “but boys and girls are different – the store is just putting on a display that reflects society” or “the kids can’t read, so what difference does it make?” or “I don’t buy what the store tells me to buy – I buy what I want”. It’s interesting that none of these people can see that there might be an impact on children by sending the message that boys and girls should play with different toys.

Personally, I think that the Typical Response #3 group can be ignored. For many (me included) Facebook is pure fluff – everything in there is as intellectually challenging as a video of cats. Certainly, if I didn’t have children, I would probably have been in this group as well.

Now we come to Typical Response #4. This astonished me. The number of responses that, with the help of threats of violence and expletives, said “shut your face you b!#¢h and mind your own f&¢%!@g business” (no, I’m not exaggerating) was worrisome. Part of me is sad that the store decided to remove these postings. I understand why they did it, since they have a policy of editing hateful messages on their Facebook page. However,  the quantity and content of these postings revealed that equal rights for women isn’t held in ubiquitous regard – even in a very socially-egalitarian country like Denmark. I’m sad that these postings are not still on display so that the rest of the population can be made aware of an ugly side of the society.

Finally, the Typical Response #5 – which is what we expected to the the overwhelming  response – was rather underwhelming. Yes, there were supporters – and these numbers grew in response as the more abusive comments started coming in. However, I think that these people were more prone to just hit the “Like” button and not leave a comment, which left the comments generally presenting the opposing opinion.

Finally, there were some people who got the message, loud and clear

“Når man som jeg underviser i datalogi og har et hold med 103 mandlige studerende og 2 kvinder, er det ikke så positivt at se budskabet “computere er for drenge” på legetøjsplan.” (trans: “When I teach computer science and I see a class with 103 males students and two women, it isn’t so encouraging to see the message ‘computers are for boys’ in the toy display.”) This was exactly the point in the first place – and it was reassuring to see that someone out there got it.

The wrap-up of the story is that the Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) picked up the posting and rallied people to bombard the store’s Facebook page with complaints asking to remove the gender segregation of toys. Eventually, 4 days after the original posting was made, the store changed its policy, country-wide and will no longer present toys with a gender bias.

It is worth noting that, in Norway, gender bias in toy advertisements is illegal. In Sweden, it is also normal to see gender-neutral toy advertisements as you can see in this flyer for Toys R Us. Nice to see a girl with the gun and boys playing with dolls and the stove for a change. What should not be odd is how strange it looks.

Why is it that we cannot see how we teach our children antiquated gender roles from a  very early age? Colin Stokes makes an interesting point in his TED talk about how the movies our children watch regularly teach them that life rarely contains more than one female – and that, when there are two or more girls in the same place at the same time, the only thing that they talk about are boys. Some people are protesting, but too few, I think.


Some additional sites about this

If you can read Danish, or understand the output from Google Translate:

Article in bt.dk – where, interestingly, the headline reads “Bilka bends to angry feminists” – an interesting spin on categorisation of the complainant…

Debate on Politiken.dk



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