Study shows advertising is still an obstacle to raising kids without gender stereotypes

A new study from Harbinger and Ehm & Co has found younger generations of parents, who are trying to raise their children without imposing gender stereotypes, see marketers as key obstacles to their efforts.

The study suggests that marketers risk a consumer backlash for ascribing gender to otherwise gender-neutral products and should consider supporting societal views that align with how parents feel about gender-appropriate behavior for children.

Shift to gender-neutral parenting

The study reveals a generational shift is at work with seven in 10 parents (70.4%) being more open-minded in how they raise their children vs. how they were raised with regard to gender norms.

While parents are more relaxed about what is considered gender appropriate behavior in kids, younger parents, in particular, say their efforts to raise kids without gender boundaries are made more difficult by a society that is heavily influenced by TV, movies, product availability and advertising. For example, when comparing responses of parents with at least one child in the same age group, the study found Millennial parents are more than twice as likely (47%) as Boomer parents (21%) to say brands/advertising make it difficult for them to raise their kids without imposing gender stereotypes.

Reflective of the sense among parents that marketers aren’t supporting their changing attitudes towards gender behavior is their perception that popular family brands such as Nintendo, Apple and Lego have become less gender neutral and more ‘for boys’.

“We believe a reason why some brands are seen as less gender neutral is related to the increase in gendered alternatives available,” says Jennifer Lomax, vice president, Harbinger. “Marketers have seen an opportunity to enter markets and grow margins with gendered product innovations, including licensing popular children’s characters or adding line extensions.”

Double standard

While parents overall are becoming more open-minded about gender boundaries, their actions can still skew towards traditional gender roles. Comments from respondents suggest this double standard results from parents wanting to protect themselves and children from being judged by a world that’s heavily influenced by media and brands:

Parents are more likely to impose stricter gender boundaries for sons (12%) than for daughters (1%).
Parents consider it more acceptable for girls to play with trucks and cars (95%) than for boys to play with dolls (89%).
Parents are much more likely to buy gender specific items like bicycles for boys (26%) than for girls (11%).
Dads, in particular, are more susceptible to peer pressure around gender and more likely than moms to set clearly defined gender boundaries for their children:

In dual parent households, dads (30%) are much more likely than moms (4%) to be the stricter parent with regard to clearly defined gender roles.
Dads (14%) are twice as likely as moms (7%) to admit to making choices based on societal norms or pressures.
Power of moms

Comments from moms, in particular, reveal a frustration over brands that ascribe a gender to otherwise unisex children’s items and activities, suggesting marketers pay close attention to them in creating and selling gendered products.

“The real power to effect change lies in the hands of consumers and moms in particular,” says Erica Ehm, CEO and Creative Director, Ehm & Co. “The most impactful thing parents can do if they are not happy with perceived gender limitations imposed by media and brands is to vote with their wallets. Don’t purchase from or engage with companies that don’t share your values.”

The Harbinger/Ehm & Co study found moms are the key household decision-maker and the parent who is most looking for gender-neutral alternatives for her children:

Moms (53%) vs. dads (37%) are the dominant decision-maker for children’s activities and sports for sons and daughters.
Moms, in general, are half as likely as dads to always choose the gendered alternative of bikes, sports equipment, toys and snacks/candy.
“Ultimately, we’re not saying do away completely with traditional gender conventions, but we do caution marketers to be sensitive to changing parental attitudes, to ensure they are not perceived as an obstacle,” says Lomax. “Product design, packaging and promotion are powerful levers marketers should consider in helping children explore and play without being limited or excluded on the basis of gender.