California became the first state in the nation Saturday to adopt a law requiring large retail stores to provide gender-neutral toy sections under a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The new law, which takes effect in 2024, says that retail stores with 500 or more employees must sell some toys and child-care products outside of areas specifically labeled by gender. Retailers can continue to offer other toys and child-care goods in traditional boys and girls sections if they choose to.
Newsom offered no comment on the bill signing, one of several announced in the final batch of legislative actions weighed for the year.
Assembly Bill 1084 continues a gradual shift in the retail industry away from strictly marketing children’s products under traditional gender stereotypes, said Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), who introduced the legislation. Target dropped boys and girls toy sections in 2015, and other retailers have since moved away from gender-specific labels.
“Part of it is to make sure if you’re a young girl that you can find a police car, fire truck, a periodic table or a dinosaur,” Low said. “And then similarly, if you’re a boy, if you’re more artistic and want to play with glitter, why not? Why should you feel the stigma of saying, ‘Oh, this should be shamed’ and going to a different location?”
Low said the daughter of one of his staff members inspired the bill when the girl questioned why she had to go to the boys section to find certain toys.
“Children have a very unique way of saying things that provide some common sense,” Low said. “I think it’s important that we as a state are demonstrating our values of diversity and inclusion.”
Democratic lawmakers received criticism for so-called nanny state governing as the proposal moved through the Legislature this year, with opponents arguing that government should not tell a private company how to organize or display its merchandise.
Campbell Leaper, a distinguished professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz, said companies began using gender labels and pink and blue indicators to market products specifically to girls or boys during the 1940s and 1950s.
Research into developmental psychology says children become aware of gender categories as early as age 3 and are very sensitive to gender-based labels, he said.
“We know from a variety of different research once they have those categories in their heads and if you label something for girls or boys, children will often ignore it if it’s labeled for the other gender,” Leaper said.
Children use toys to practice skills that become helpful in their lives, and stereotypes around what toys are acceptable for girls and boys can lead to disparities among genders, he said.
Kids learn spatial skills from construction toys, for example, which can help later on when they learn math in school. Similarly, playing with house sets or dolls teach children socio-emotional skills, which can improve their ability to communicate and form relationships, Leaper said.
“No one thing is determinative of where a person ends up in life, but you know these all have a cumulative effect and, especially during childhood, children spend so much time in play with toys that it’s their workshop when they’re growing up in terms of learning about different kinds of things,” he said. “It can help to foster that interest early on.”
Leaper said boys and girls section also create a stigma for children who are gender-nonconforming or exploring other gender identities.
“But even for kids that identify with their birth-assigned gender there may be some children who want to play with some of these toys, but then end up avoiding them because they don’t want to be considered abnormal somehow,” Leaper said.
Low compared his legislation to earlier laws in California that require publicly traded companies to add women to their corporate boards, force employers to release pay data to improve gender equity and require many single-occupancy bathrooms to use “all gender” signs.
Retailers that fail to comply with the new law will be subject to minimal civil penalties of $250 for a first violation and $500 for additional violations.
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