Gender Stereotyping Begins in Infancy

How soon does gender stereotyping start? suggests that it starts as soon as a baby is born.

For people who argue that a t-shirt for girls implying they are not capable of liking or being good at things like math, and who often say, “what’s the big deal?” or “it’s only a t-shirt” or “get over it,” seem to have little or no comprehension of the numerous messages that girls are getting from very young ages. How young? Pretty much from birth.

Take these Fisher Price baby rattles–one for a girl and one for a boy. How do we know which one is which? Well, it says it right there on the packaging:

But let’s take a look at these closely and note the differences. Immediately, of course, color is gender specified to the accepted pink/purple for girls and primary colors of blue/yellow for boys. The rattle for a baby girl, ages 3 to 19 months (you can’t get much younger than that) is called the “Diamond Ring Rattle” Yes, because all baby girls should begin to desire what will eventually become a life long goal—to have a giant rock on their finger! The rattle for an infant boy is called the “Hammerin’ Rattle.” Of course, boys will be the ones to provide that rock by starting to learn a skill such as hammering. One implies passivity and a life of leisure—the other activity and learning.

For more gender reinforcement, there is the text. The little baby girl is “sweet” and the words are inside a bright pink heart with flowers. Boys, on the other hand, are “busy” in blue on red. Again, “sweet” versus “busy”…girls are described using a word that is a reflection of their disposition (God forbid you have a baby girl who is not sweet) and boys get to be busy (not sweet). Boys do, girls don’t. Note, they do have one similarity in that they’re both “easy to grasp” although, with that huge diamond ring on their finger, it might be more difficult for girls. Not to worry, though, because boys will always be there to help a girl who can’t lift something by herself. After all, he was using a hammer when he was three months old!

So, to those who say, “what’s the big deal?” I say, this is just one example of too many to count in which girls and boys are already being stereotyped. It starts at birth. And to know this—all you have to do is look around and open your eyes. You won’t have to look far.

Check out Princess Free Zone.

Main Photo The Jordan Collective/Flickr

Rattle photo by

About Princess Free Zone

Michele Yulo is the founder of Princess Free Zone, Inc., a brand and blog that offers an alternative to all things princess for little girls by addressing issues of gender and gender stereotyping. She has a master’s degree in English from Georgia State University and enjoys writing and enlightened discourse. You can visit her website at , join PFZ on Facebook or email her at


  1. Can you tell us more about this? I’d love to find out more details.

  2. Ignore that, i didnt read the article date, please cancle last post.

  3. I don’t understand the tenor of some of these comments. Princess Free Zone is a girls advocacy group. That does not make them unsympathetic to boys. Boys advocacy groups are not by definition anti-girl. Most of these groups collaborate and support each other. But in this blog post, PFZ is putting forth some issue affecting girls. This is a blog post, not a full-length book. But books were suggested for parents of both genders. Only so much material can be covered in 1000 or so words. When commenters say angrily, “What about this?” or “What about that?” there is an assumption that the writer does not know these things or has left them out for nefarious reasons. Nope. There are only so many words in a blog post, and an issue has been highlighted…one among many that are possible. I also can’t stand the flame wars. Has PFZ said anything rude or insulting? No, but anonymous commenters feel entitled to unleash their anger and scorn for whatever reason, when the author is trying to do good in the world…good for girls in particular, as that is their mission, but ultimately for everyone, because we are all connected. We are all in this together. I am amazed at how heated and divisive things can become so quickly. The author of this blog post does not get paid. She works very hard to get thoughtful information and opinions out there to benefit readers. They can take what they like and leave the rest. Or, *civil* debate is always welcome. Moderating comment bombs comes with the territory, but the personal attacks bloggers suffer continues to baffle and upset me. No good deed goes unpunished. Serenity now.

  4. Who are these people you speak of?? I’ve never run across anyone in my lifetime that assumed or implied that I or my daughters wouldn’t be good at or like math because they wore girly shirts…nor was it ever my, or my daghter’s, life long goal to have a “rock” on our finger. This isn’t a problem of having distinct choices on the market, this is an issue that is a parental issue. If your parents raised you to believe that women are inferior, it’s sad, but I don’t know of any other parent who has had this issue. Nor do I know of any kids or adults who are troubled because they were dressed according to gender. There’s a distinct difference between men and women, niether of which is shameful and neither of which is inferior. Perhaps the issue is yours and you’re projecting it onto the world. Get a grip.

  5. Your short article here focused almost exclusively on how these early stereotypes negatively affect girls and women. Maybe you even believe that the main negative impact of this sort of thing for _boys_ is that it negatively impacts girls.

    But what about boys who could have become writers if their mothers hadn’t encouraged them to play with only with toy construction tools, legos, and cars?

    And what about the biggest early stereotype of all: that boys do not grow up and teach elementary school or kindergarten? For a boy whose father is always working, the complete absence of male role models at school (aside from the ones on television) is devastating to his future.

    • Michael–while I focus mainly on girls, I completely agree that boys are a part of the equation that need to be addressed as well (which is why I mentioned “Packaging Boyhood” above). Undoubtedly, the rattle example shows gender stereotyping on both sides: boys will do manly things like use a hammer, and girls will be passive and get the ring! Yes, absolutely, boys need to be raised in their own version of the Princess Free Zone. As a society we hurt our boys by our strict version of masculinity that does not allow for them, after a certain age (research shows that as babies and toddlers, boys are actually more affectionate and sensitive than girls, but that changes over time) to simply be who they are. Like girls, they will adhere to those stereotypes and it will become increasingly difficult to break out of them. I think The Good Men Project does a great job of discussing many of these issue that appear later in life possibly as a result of how boys are raised. There are some great sites that do focus on boys only (check out The Achilles Effect if you haven’t). Princess Free Zone is affiliated with organizations that deal with boys. It makes sense that boys and girls develop ideas about what it is to be a boy/girl from a very young age and that informs their association with gender throughout their lives. And what you said about men teaching–there is not one male teacher in my daughter’s school. What does that say to children? The bottom line is that gender stereotypes hurt boys and girls. I appreciate your comment.

  6. That was a good article, Michele. Thanks for writing it. It’s too bad that you got so many defensive comments.

    The real problem with gender stereotyping is that it perpetuates male dominance. As long as our culture wants men to be on top, women will lose out.

    • Michele, KT complimented you and you never thanked her. I can understand why you responded to all the defensive comments but it was rude to ignore someone who liked your article.

  7. Stimulating piece and commentary. You may be interested in a study recently published in the “British Journal of Developmental Psychology” which attempted to measure exactly when, developmentally, girls begin preferring pink. Girls are quite young when they develop a preference for pink. A snippet: “At the age of two, but not before, girls chose pink objects more often than boys did, and by age two and a half they demonstrated a clear preference for pink, picking the pink-coloured object more often than you’d expect based on random choice.” Here is a link to a summary of the research:

    • That’s an interesting article, but I see a huge problem with this. None of those kids were raised in an environment free from gender messages. All the time they aren’t in a lab, a lot of them are getting gender-specific toys and clothes, and seeing TV and commercials. Of course they’re going to learn that girls are supposed to like pink and boys aren’t, and they’re going to pick the “appropriate” color more often. My nephew’s favorite color was purple until he was 2 or 3, but now it’s “a girl’s color.” In many parts of Asia, pink has traditionally been a gender-neutral color, and I doubt female babies there would show the same “genetic preference” for it. That study is shoddy science if it doesn’t address this issue.

      • Okay, I must have been asleep when I read the article the first time. It clearly says that they think it’s a learned behavior. Ignore my post above. Embarrassing!

  8. There is an important distinction to be made about gender-segmented infant toys like these rattles. Obviously infants have no idea whether they are shaking something shaped like a hammer or a diamond ring, nor do they have any inherent associations connected to the pink/purple pastel scheme or the primary color scheme. While it is true that these toys may be viewed as a gateway to the all-the-time, every-day, everywhere gender stereotyped messaging that marketers will be targeting girls with from cradle to grave, constructing for them what femininity is and how it should be performed, I think these rattles actually target parents more than babies. Parents are the first consumers–on behalf of children. If parents can be won over early–from or even before the birth of their babies–they will purchase the passive/pink/princessy things for daughters and the active/adventurous/unlimiting things for sons, and the cycle will have begun. Eventually the girls will come to associate being a girl with wearing pink and playing with toys focused on being looked at rather than on being active, engaged, intelligent, and curious about the world. They will go off to preschool, look around them at the other girls and the toys in the room, and come home and announce that they only like pink now, only want to be pretty when they grow up, etc. What people need to understand is that we are talking about a forest, not about any individual trees. There is no problem with A pink dress or A glittery tutu or A particular t-shirt. The problem can only be seen when people *look* and if you *look* then you notice that *everything* for girls these days is pink. If you walk through the mall or the park or a library–anywhere at all–and look at girls, you will suddenly see “the uniform.” You will also see that everything from accessories to furniture to toys matches the uniform. It’s a Pepto Bismal world out there for girls now. And that is the problem. Not a particular rattle. The problem is ALL of it, and the insidious nature of marketing. It’s all about $$. Turn parents into consumers who have to buy a pink backpack for their younger daughter because their older son’s blue one won’t work as a hand-me-down because, well, because it’s not *pink.* THAT’S the problem with the rattles. And if you’re over, say, 20 years old, you can remember back to a time long, long ago when there were no boy or girl aisles in toy stores, and when girls wore all different colors of the rainbow, and when science kits were for everyone. We need to reclaim that world for our daughters, and we need our sons to see that girls belong there too. But mostly, we all need to open our eyes. The Emperor has no clothes on, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  9. If I had a daughter I’d dress her in pink. And I painted my son’s room blue. Sorry, but I see nothing wrong with this. Gender norms are not all evil.

    The shirts about girls being bad at algebra? Totally different story. Insulting and factually incorrect. But something like that is a far cry from baby rattles and color-coded kids toys. I understand and appreciate trying to connect the dots in certain circumstances, but I think you’re drawing arbitrary lines with this one.

    • You don’t have to apologize about painting your son’s room blue. That is your perogative as a parent. It’s perfectly fine to put your daughter in pink. Does that mean you would never dress your daughter in blue? I don’t think so. This is not about a color. It is about limiting choice and expanding options to broaden how children view themselves. My daughter hated pink (still does)–should I still dress her in pink or let her wear blue? Should I get her a doll even though she prefers trucks? Or should I tell her, “sorry, the ‘gender norm’ is that girls don’t play with trucks.” Unfortunately, there is ample amount of evidence that the marketing toward girls (and boys too) from a very young age can be detrimental to their development. Get a hold of Packaging Girlhood by Lyn Mikel Brown and Sharon Lamb–you’ll see that companies have very specific agendas regarding what kids buy. Kids are looked at as consumers and it begins very young–Disney is now in hospital maternity wards where they begin to give out packages to new mothers. Are they doing that just to be nice? I don’t think so. My hope is that we become more discerning about how we treat gender as parents and think about how that might affect our children and their future.

    • PS–The authors I mentioned also have a book called Packaging Boyhood.

    • it really though says more about your biases, daddy, not what another individual wants. did you ask either of them what they wanted, and especially if your son said he wanted the pink did you say something to the effect that boys don’t have pink rooms? gender norms are OK, just so limiting to the individual person. it is not meant to be so rigid. it is an averaging if you will, a curve where moderately less acceptable behaviors are at one end of the tail, increasing rapidly to a plateau for both sexes. perhaps imagine a u-shaped combined curve. with the line of acceptance or best fit somewhat down ward sloping as you move from female to male along the curve.

      anyway, as a professor of mine defined average, or norm if you will, when your ass is in the oven, and your head’s in the freezer, on the average you’re comfortable. it tells you nothing about the ass end or the head, or of the entire body.

  10. I doubt that 3 months olds read the labels of the toys they play with. I also doubt that without some parent, guardian, or older person telling them what to do that a baby girl or a baby boy will do anything other than shake the rattle for a few seconds and drop it once they lose interest.

    Some people put way too much thought into these kinds of things. A baby or toddler will play with their toys however they want. My godson used his rattle as a phaser after watching Star Trek with me. Just color-coding something is not going to have that much of an effect.

    • Certainly, a single toy would not have any bearing as you say. But, as my article discusses, this is not about a single toy. This is about a lifelong series of images and messages that are sent to children. It starts with color, toys, clothing, etc. Ultimately, this is how we are all shaped, so messages do matter. What we see and hear around us inevitably influences our behavior and perceptions. The t-shirt I mention in the initial paragraph was Forever 21’s tee for girls that said, “Allergic to Algebra” (which, due to public push back, they’ve discontinued). Research shows, for instance, that while girls score just as high in math as boys, there is still a perception that boys are just smarter than girls in math. We need to ask ourselves why that perception persists? From my perspective, there is a line that can be drawn from that rattle to the t-shirt. When the rattle is followed up by a wand and princess outfit, then a Barbie, then makeup, then pushup bras, then plastic surgery, etc. This is never about one item–this is about looking at the bigger picture.

      • Certainly social norms have an impact on children. I disagree, however, that giving a 6 month old girl a pink, diamond-shaped rattle will imprison her to a life of petty love for shiny objects. There is also a difference between influence and control. I think it is a stretch to say that a line can be drawn from a pink, diamond-shaped rattle to a harmless t-shirt. At best, the t-shirt implies that girls do not like math, not that they are not good at it. If one chooses to view it as “girls suck at math”, that says more about you than the shirt. As for the connection, unless people are to believe that females who played with pink rattles, wands and Barbies, wore princess outfits, makeup and push-up bras, or had plastic surgery cannot and should not be allowed to do anything else, I do not see this as a problem.

    • Alexa Scott says:

      It isnt just color coding it is the stereotypes along with it. Have you never been in toys r us? When you walk in you are directed right away to either the blue side or the pink side. Compare what is sold on each side. The pink side carries such toys as dolls, babies, princesses, kitchen sets and cooking sets. The boys side includes toys like fighters, trunks, sports etc. It unfortunately becomes a predisposition just to follow the color code. There is nothing wrong with being gender specific and doing everything pink for girls and blue for boys, all we are doing is show casing that these become gender stereotyped to being male or female. Children are born “gender neutral” they are biologically male/female but the characteristics and personality they develop is based solely upon such things as interaction, toys, books etc that influence who they become.

      I am in my fifth year of child and youth studies, and my research has been on biology and the genetic pre-disposition of children. There is no arbitrary line, it is there, and people would be very surprised as to just how much children know.

      One of my research articles was based on color coded toys, and gender specific toys. The children were in a play room with different toys placed in front of them. We watched and correlated which toys each toddler played with. It was shocking to see how fast they picked up on specific toys.

      • not completely true Alexa. it is a combination of nature and nurture, not solely based on interactions. witness a hermaphrodite in Canada raised as a girl his entire life, causing immense distress. by nature he was a boy and no amount of girl interaction, activities and surroundings could change that.

    • actually, by itself Jacob, other than the messages on the packaging when the child does know how to read, is the underlying message that the child will constantly be bathed in by the parent(s) who give no thought to this at all when they see it. if the girl reaches for a hammer as she gets older, the culture will beam with her can-do attitude. but if the boy reaches for a barbie then his emotional hand gets slapped with the that’s a toy for girls routine.

      but the marketers just can’t seem to get this basic concept of their perpetuation of stereotyping. do they honestly think that ALL girls and boys like their respective and mutually differentiated product by the very nature of what’s between their legs? if so then culturally we’re stupider than I think we are, and that’s going some.

      I want all people, women and men to have every free right, without fear of reprise or shame to choose to do anything, be anything, wear anything they want as long as it hurts no one else in the process.

  11. @gypsypony — Thanks for your comment. PFZ’s tagline is “come as you are” and it sounds like you are allowing your children the freedom to do just that. PFZ also has some super cool tees for girls (one with a dinosaur) that sound right up your daughter’s alley (my daughter loves dinos too!). As I said, it’s not about either/or–kids don’t know what “feminine” or “masculine” are when they’re kids–they just gravitate toward what they like. There is nothing wrong with a girl wearing a tutu or the color pink or a boy choosing something sparkly–that’s what we need to get over.

  12. Love your post. My two are non conformists. My first, my daughter, has always been “non-girly”. She prefers dinosaurs, predators, books, writing, bugs. It is next to impossible to find “normal” clothes, especially as she enters her tween years. Everything is either cut up to the moon or cut down to the floor. She doesn’t like frills and lace and exposure. She likes clothes that clothe her, and let her be free to play. My second, my son, loves all things sparkly. He enjoys dance, and stuffed animals, and Disney. There are definitely more options for him in the clothing department. Oh, and they have been raised by the same parents, in the same house, with the same toys, and with the same exposures to music/theater/etc.
    Thank you for bringing this up.

    • My first, my daughter, has always been “non-girly”. She prefers dinosaurs, predators, books, writing, bugs. It is next to impossible to find “normal” clothes, especially as she enters her tween years. Everything is either cut up to the moon or cut down to the floor. She doesn’t like frills and lace and exposure. She likes clothes that clothe her, and let her be free to play. My second, my son, loves all things sparkly. He enjoys dance, and stuffed animals, and Disney. There are definitely more options for him in the clothing department.

      You must be talking about a very particular and unique retail environment in your area. Because generally girls have more clothing options than boys. Girls have sold to them pretty much everything that is sold to boys(apart from the suit). PLUS dresses, and skirts.

      And if the female version of boys clothing isnt suitable, a girl can go to the boys section and wear the male version. Can a boy as easily go to the girls sections and wear the female version – or skirts, or dresses? Well, you should see the hard stares or mocking smiles that women give me when i go into the women’s section to buy clothing currently sold only to women

  13. First of all, I don’t believe in “gender-less”–everyone has a gender biologically speaking and nobody is trying to get rid of it. What we’re trying to eliminate are the negative or harmful stereotypes that tend to limit both sexes in various ways. Of course girls should have the choice–but femininity shouldn’t be equated with qualities like materialism, laziness, and stupidity. The point is, they should have options–and right now it’s pretty much relegated to princess, pink, tutus, etc. As girls get older it changes from pretty and sassy to sexy and vapid. Princess Free Zone actually stems from the fact that my daughter, from a very early age (about three) didn’t like girly things. The only option for her was in boys departments. Just didn’t seem right to me that there was nothing for girls that represented her. This seemed ridiculous to me. Why can’t girls choose a hammer without it being identified as “boy?” All they have to remove is the text. Of course, in general it’s a huge endeavor as you say to attempt to change the way we think, as a society, about gender. But social change never comes easy–and it takes many to have an effect. That doesn’t mean we should give up, does it? I think not.

  14. The Bad Man says:

    I like the sound of that “Princess Free Zone”, but isn’t an arts degree pretty much stereotypical?

    Sure, gender stereotyping starts in infancy, but don’t you realize that is nearly impossible to change without trying to change the whole world. Also, shouldn’t girls/women have the choice to be feminine and not be limited to a genderless identity?

    • Alexa Scott says:

      Yes but whom decides that? Babies cannot decide to be feminine or masculine, it is the influences around them that decide that for them. This coming from someone who had three brothers, and a metro-sexual father. If you are raised around females and pink you are more likely to become the same because it is what you know. I have a 14 month old daughter, who has an equal balance of both “male” and “female” toys, clothes etc. This, allows her to decide what type of stereotypical gender characteristics she portrays.

    • I find luckily its all a grey area, as we get older. Men may have less choice of clothes, but I have trousers in almost every colour imaginable. My favourites are my dark pink pair. Im still hugely popular with the ladies despite this. I’ve been accepted on a performing arts course as well. I guess there are two sides to every coin. Men can be scared to go to dancing lessons, because they think its sissy, but if you tell them he lady of their dreams is at the class, some will race to find out and some sadly still wont. I accept it is good that we have rules in life but we can still have fun

  15. perhaps we could get past the binary description of feminist and chauvinist and supplant that with a better term. I call it being a humanist.


  1. […] When parents choose toys for their children, they often wind up with gendered options, but not necessarily by choice.  Advertisers design toys which segregate males and females, even if they are the same type of item.  This description of two rattles explains exactly what I mean: “Immediately, of course, color is gender specified to the accepted pink/purple for girls and primary colors of blue/yellow for boys. The rattle for a baby girl, ages 3 to 19 months (you can’t get much younger than that) is called the “Diamond Ring Rattle” Yes, because all baby girls should begin to desire what will eventually become a life long goal—to have a giant rock on their finger! The rattle for an infant boy is called the “Hammerin’ Rattle.” Of course, boys will be the ones to provide that rock by starting to learn a skill such as hammering. One implies passivity and a life of leisure—the other activity and learning,” (Princess Free Zone, 2011). […]

  2. Trackback Link…

    […]Here are some of the sites we recommend for our visitors[…]…

  3. […] a blog post about teaching our girls to be feminists. But I also reckon boys […]

  4. […] I wrote a blog post about teaching our girls to be feminists. But I also think boys should be taught what it is to be a feminist. A couple of years ago, I […]

  5. […] I wrote a blog post about teaching our girls to be feminists. But I also think boys should be taught what it is to be a feminist. A couple of years ago, I […]

Speak Your Mind