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Boys toys no more: Laura Nelson takes Hamleys campaign to schools

In December 2011 Dr Laura Nelson successfully campaigned for the Hamleys store to remove its gender-specific signs and pink and blue floors. Now Laura explains how her blog helped her campaign against so-called 'gender apartheid' at Hamleys and why she's now tackling stereotypes in schools.

Laura NelsonA couple of years ago I set out to understand why we live in an unequal society. Why do boys and girls, on average, grow up to take on different roles? Why is our society so skew? For example, four-fifths of UK politicians are male, only one eighth of British FTSE 100 directorships are held by women and most carers are female.

Many people told me it was because boys and girls, men and women, are naturally different in the way we think and behave, and what we aspire to. I was curious about this belief. I too had believed it (and felt like an alien at school because I was a lone girl liking maths and science). What if it could be shown to be untrue? Our unequal culture, bolted into place with myths and falsehoods and prejudices, might begin to rock at its hinge.

So I read books and articles. Making use of my neuroscience background, I spoke to experts and I wrote campaigning articles on my blog. For months, I studied the evidence and its implications, and, when I emerged from my review period, I was excited and liberated. My conclusion, as many feminists have concluded before me: there is no universal scientific consensus that men and women are born with different cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills. Conversely and worryingly, what we do with our brain as we progress through life is far more likely to change its structure and function.

In October last year, when I wandered into Hamleys toyshop in London intending to buy a present for my niece, I was struck by stark difference in the toys on the girls' floor versus the boys' floor. I waged a campaign, arguing that the separation restricted parents' and children's choices, interests and aspirations. Just before Christmas, Hamleys removed the gender-specific labels and the story received explosive and substantial media coverage all over the world.

Now I'm working on a new project, to build on my successful campaign in Hamleys. Breakthrough: The Gender Stereotypes Project is a schools programme that kickstarts the debate about gender stereotypes among children, their parents and their teachers. I have been working with Laura Kirsop, an inspiring and dynamic Year Five teacher at Soho Parish School in central London and we ran a programme of gender lessons last month.

Breakthrough's aims are to encourage debate, rather than pushing children into thinking a certain way, and to cover all aspects of gender stereotype awareness – interests, marketing, aspirations, personality strengths and skills – within the remit of the National Curriculum.

The results have been phenomenal. The children began with fixed ideas about what girls and boys should be like, but changed their minds about what was acceptable. They pledged to treat all people fairly, to celebrate their uniqueness and to try new activities that they might previously have judged unsuited to their sex. They gained critical thinking and analytical skills, practised debating and learned to reason for themselves.

So what's next? We hope to roll this programme out so more children can benefit. I am receiving requests from parents, governors, teachers and potential partners, and ideas to develop Breakthrough so it covers more age groups with more material. The demand is there and we're working together to make it happen.

Last updated: 09-Apr-2013 at 4:30 PM