John Lewis’s decision to remove ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ labels from children’s clothing and in-store has triggered predictable accusations of political correctness gone mad.
But scratch the surface and it’s clear to me that business – and society – can only stand to benefit from a move away from traditional gender-binary labelling across all children’s product lines.
Working with campaign group Let Clothes Be Clothes, the company has become the first UK retailer to remove gender descriptors from children’s clothes and removed separate girls and boys areas in its stores – a shift it is also now working to make online. The aim is simple, John Lewis says: to avoid "gender stereotypes".
Gender in children’s retailing has long been a thorny issue with the sexualisation of children – young girls, especially – a particular concern.
From T-shirts for three year-olds bearing the slogan ‘Future WAG’ to high heeled shoes starting at Size 1 (the shoe size of an average eight year-old), examples of inappropriately sexualised clothing for young girls are legion.
Gender stereotyping in toys and retail marketing has also come in for criticism, with the Let Toys Be Toys Campaign urging manufacturers and retailers to arrange toys by theme and function rather than gender (as all too often defined by colour: blue or pink). Meanwhile The Gap referring to a young boy as a "little scholar" and a young girl as "a social butterfly" caused an outcry just last year .
So good on you John Lewis. Removing any traps and tropes that trip our children up can only be a good thing.
Because before you even touch on all of the potentially negative social and political side effects related to gender stereotyping it is obvious – and now I am speaking as the mother of an eight year-old little girl, Yvie – that when children play they are driven by need-states first, not gender considerations. What harm can come from lining the retail experience up with the way they live?
Yes, Yvie and her best friend (a boy) know they are different to each other but, when they play together, gender is an irrelevant factor for the most part. She will happily be a ninja while he is a princess and gender stereotypes are simply not an issue to them. Maybe we made too much out of boys vs girls? Maybe we don’t need to separate them so much? Certainly, as a parent, we all understand this and all John Lewis is doing is extending the notion to the way we shop.
Besides, if you can do anything to avoid hurting even one little person then surely that’s a good thing, so I welcome the removal of any structures that accentuate distinctions in (and between) young children. Before I raise a little girl I will try to raise a curious, open-minded and creative human. And I imagine the longer she is left to play without binary concepts restricting what she can use to develop and play, the more successful I will be with that.
John Lewis is doing nothing more than ensuring their retail experience and floor plan reflects the way children live. I’m grateful for its broadening of its social context. And I would like to think that we’re all adult enough to get over any short term inconvenience of having to re-train the way we browse and buy.
Sheryl Marjoram is managing director of McCann London