We Used to Play with Ironing Boards…

ironing board play

Playtime ironing: how toys programme gender roles into our kids

When I dug through old photos of me and my sister as kids, I often found us poised beside a barrage of bright, objectively useless toys. Indeed, this is how it should be. We foster our children’s freedom from the boredom of Brexit (or whatever did the soul destroying in the ‘90s; dial-up internet, for instance) with good, honest fun. In one picture, however, my sister is doing something strange: she is ironing. Or at least, she is pretending to iron. There she is with her baby-sized board and stone-cold implement, pretending to embrace the dullest activity conceived by mankind. And we never even questioned it.

Such domestic playthings are littered throughout our houses. It’s bizarre, and unclear why early exposure to adulthood monotony is limited to household chores. After all, we don’t stick kids in tiny job centres or give them miniature tax returns. Then again, youngsters have been playing house since the dawn of time (or the dawn of houses, presumably). We even have entire theme parks dedicated to the concept. KidZania, the leisure facility in which children are effectively sent to work, is now open across 20 countries and has won multiple awards. Kids like to act like their parents – so what?

ironing board

Take another look at these toys. Note the barrage of pink squeezed into every corner, the purpling edges of that tiny vacuum cleaner, how adverts almost exclusively feature a little girl. On the other hand, we have blue toolkits, dark green workbenches and cute little boys wearing hard hats. The message is clear: boys should do boy things like DIY and construction, while girls clean the clothes and cook the dinner.

We are setting up our kids to maintain the very same gender roles we struggle to abolish.

It would be all too easy to throw blame at the manufacturers. Like any retail business, they work on the basis of supply and demand, and we provide the demand. Perhaps adults are buying these toys in their own image, projecting their own daily activities and hobbies upon their kids. Or, as is more likely, children pick up on their respective duties from their parents. Guess what they learn from their mother?

Research into the division of household labour is definitive: women still do the lion’s share, doing up to 60% more housework than men. Even when presented with the scenario of a same-sex household, research subjects lumbered the partner who expressed more ‘feminine’ interests – shopping or romcoms – with traditionally female roles like childcare, groceries, and doing the laundry. TV ads do little to relieve these stereotypes. Every fifteen minutes a woman will soar across the screen on her favourite new vacuum cleaner, or she’ll gaze at a bottle of Dettol like it’s her first child.

This divide, however, isn’t only confined to visual cues; it’s embedded in the very language we use. When we refer to men doing chores, we don’t call it ‘cleaning up’ or ‘doing housework’ – we call it ‘helping around the house’. In a single word we shift the main responsibility somewhere else, and reward men with connotations of heroism and voluntary aid. For a woman, on the other hand, it’s practically a prerequisite of being female.

Some argue this is simply the way of things. A review of anecdotal evidence suggests many women do, apparently, just genuinely care more about cleanliness. Surely, one might say, a man should not be punished simply because their partner has a less favourable view of mess? One New York columnist proved logic can be bullied into the weirdest of forms by arguing this very point. “I like having magazines strewn across the coffee table. My wife doesn’t,” explains Jonathan Chait. His reasoning is, since he sees no harm in a little mess, he shouldn’t be subjected to her rules about cleanliness.

OK Jonathan, I’m sure you’re totally fine with the excrement caked against the walls of the toilet, and of course you wouldn’t bat an eyelid when rats begin to circle that overflowing bin. Oh, because you’re unphased by an unmade bed or magazines being scattered across the table, that means all housework is optional? Seriously? Come on.

When it comes to the division of housework, we could open a whole can of worms regarding the ‘breadwinner’ and household maintenance falling on whoever spends the most time at home. This might even be a convincing argument, if it weren’t true that the more a woman out-earns her partner, the less housework he does.

Clearly, traditional domestic gender roles are still heavily embedded in our culture. We like to think times are changing – and they are – but, equally, we protect antiquated ideals via the toys we give our children. It’s time to alter the demand. If you must purchase a mini ironing board for your offspring, choose a neutral-coloured one like my sister and I had. Buy a toolkit for your little girl. Swim against the wave of pink crashing over chore-related toys. It’s time to teach children that housework is genderless.