Yellow kittens and green robotrucks: the gender gap in children’s clothes

Anyone who has shopped for children’s’ clothes online or in person in major brands has had to make the choice. Boy or girl? There is no room for middle ground or wavering. Make your choice and move on, we already made the rest of the choices for you and your kid. Trucks are for boys, kittens are for girls. Pink is strictly for girls and also purple. Sneaking into the girl’s section to get my son a yellow shirt with cats on it (because he happens to like them) feels like stealing. These messages clothing carries imprint on our children and shape their identities for the rest of their lives. Estimating the size of the problem is the first step to addressing it. In this post from the Gendered series I tackle the question of how biased our kids’ clothes really are, using data of course.

The choice you need to make on while shopping for toddler clothes.

I collected data on kids’ t-shirts from three large brands of affordable kids clothing with online catalogues – Carter’s, Target and Old Navy – for ages 1-7 y.o.. Using the catalogues, I recorded the colors of and images and words printed on hundreds of t-shirts sold online for boys and girls by these brands. [Please note that data collection was done in Dec 2020 and offerings might have changed since then].

The colors

Below you see the distribution of the colors for boys and girls in the three brands. In all three, boys have a lot more blue, green, red, orange and gray t-shirts than girls. While girls have a lot more pink, purple and white/beige t-shirts than boys. The differences are particularly pronounced in purple (there are NO boys’ t-shirts in purple in any of the brands), white and pink.

Grouping boys’ majority colors (blue, green, red, orange & gray) and girls’ majority colors (pink, purple and white/beige) reveals another interesting trend. Girls have a greater variety of options than boys. Girls’ majority colors are less than 11% of the offerings for boys in the three brands, with only 4% in Old Navy. This confirms that gender progress is a one-way street. It’s OK for girls to be like boys, but it’s a lot less acceptable for boys to be girly. While girls are moving forward, boys are still stuck in a tighter mold. Out of the three brands, it looks like Carter’s is the most balanced, while Old Navy is the most biased.

The graphics

Colors are just the beginning. Many of the kids’ t-shirts also sport colorful graphics. Here the situation is even more severe. For Carter’s, the most balanced of the brands (based on colors), the differences in the topics of the t-shirt graphics between genders is stark. 61% of boys’ t-shirts feature dinosaurs or vehicles in comparison to only 5% of girls’ t-shirts. 28% of girls’ t-shirts show flowers. How many boys’ t-shirts show flowers? None. Same goes to cats, butterflies and unicorns. You can’t find those on boys’ t-shirts. Girls’ on the other hand are deprived of sharks, robots and superheroes.

And when you do find dinosaurs on girls’ t-shirts, they are combined with hearts and rainbows and pink, and are restricted to friendly herbivores. Boys’ dinosaurs are in vast majority toothy T-rexes and often combined with robots, vehicles or sports for a good measure. Here too we can find evidence of boys having less options than girls. The top three categories of boys’ graphics encompass 71% of boys’ t-shirts. While the top three categories for girls, encompass 51% of girls’ t-shirts. Girls have a greater variety of topics for their t-shirts (15 vs 11, not all shown in the table).

Images taken from online catalogue.

The words

I already showed you the striking differences in wording of boys’ and girls’ magazines. The same unfortunately is true for words appearing on kids’ t-shirts. The most common word on boys’ t-shirts is “Play” while the most common word for girls’ t-shirt is “Love”. Other common words for boys are about action and domination – chomp, rescue, roll, wild, off-road, mvp, champ, dig, ball. Other common words for girls are about relationships – best, bestie, friend, hello.

So what?

Wondering how to bring more women into tech? How to have more female executives? Why not start from the beginning. Right now we literally label our children into their roles in their most formative years. What girls see in their clothes is that they are destined for kittens, hearts, friends and flowers, while boys are made for trucks, sports, movement and aggression. These messages in and on our clothes might seem to be small and insignificant, but our world is made of such small and insignificant things that together make up our reality. So what can we do about this? It’s simple, JUST REMOVE THE LABELS:

T-shirt images and the title taken from online catalogue.

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