Hamley’s campaign – guest blog Dr Laura Nelson

This is a guest post by Dr Laura Nelson which shows the effect a well timed and targeted campaign can have.

Laura is a writer, blogger and Head of Development and Communications in a healthcare charity. She has a doctorate in neuroscience, writes the Delilah blog and led the Christmas 2011 Hamleys campaign.

Laura NelsonMy Christmas present came early last year. Hamleys ditched its gender signs. The story blew up the week before Christmas and has been covered by most of the national newspapers, radio and TV, and numerous other news outlets in the UK and across the world.

It’s a change with significance. Hamleys is one of the world’s largest and most influential toyshops, and the run-up to Christmas is the busiest time of the year.

In October, I went into Hamleys and saw their gender segregation of toys. It was at this point that the campaign for me took off. I blogged it, I gathered support on Twitter and elsewhere – journalists, scientists, politicians and organisations such as Mumsnet. The support was huge. I devised a strategy.

In the past few years there have been successful campaigns against toyshops in Sweden (a group of schoolchildren) and the UK (the organisation Pinkstinks). A few months ago, WHSmiths in London scrapped its ‘women’s fiction’ sign. For Hamleys, I anticipated a prolonged campaign. People sent me ideas. A petition? A ‘sit-in’ protest? A legal battle? I was planning a hard fight.

Writing the letter was meant to be only the first step. I wrote to the CEO of Hamleys and spoke to their marketing team, outlining my concern that gender segregation restricted children’s and parents’ choices and influenced the development of skills and aspirations of children, contributing to society’s inequality.

In my letter, I requested they categorise toys by type, not by gender, and pointed out that on the girls’ floor the toys were related to domestic, caring and beauty activities and the boys’ floor was geared to action and war, with little scope for creativity.

At the same time as speaking to Hamleys, I contacted the nationalised Icelandic bank, Landsbanki, which controls Hamleys, the CEO, Gudjon Reynisson, is Icelandic. (Iceland is a very progressive country in terms of providing equal gender rights and opportunities; they rightly took notice.)

A few days after I sent the letter, Hamleys changed the signs. Someone sent me a tweet with a link to a photo of the new sign. It appeared that all mention of gender had been removed and the toys were now categorised by type.

I went straight to the shop and snapped a photo. I called their marketing team. They said they had been planning to change the signs anyway. A remarkable coincidence if this were true, I thought, and odd they hadn’t told me this when I first called them.

It didn’t matter what Hamleys said. It was a story. The Financial Times got it first, and then the Times. The Guardian soon followed. On the morning of Tuesday 13 December, it was mentioned on the Today programme. I had been up until 3am the night before, sending out emails and tweets with the news and I woke up to my phone dancing and beeping on my bedside table. I popped out to buy copies of the newspapers, came back and had three radio stations wanting to talk to me.

The rest of the day was a blur of media. The Telegraph called, then the Evening Standard. I was interviewed by Vanessa Feltz on BBC London radio and Irish radio. I barely had time to eat before I was whisked away to White City studios to debate gender stereotyping with another neuroscientist who believes boys and girls are born with cognitive differences.

Meanwhile, people kept sending me links of articles that were appearing. The news was spreading to Germany, Italy, Portugal, Holland, Slovenia, US, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia. Mumsnet members were discussing it. Natasha Walter wrote a piece for Virago books. Children responded to the news on the Newsround site, and the tabloids had it by the evening. The Telegraph published three opinion pieces on it, one of which opened with: “Who would be Laura Nelson today, eh?”.

I began to become more aware of negative comments, as they built up on the Telegraph and Mail. I didn’t read many of them. On BBC radio West Midlands, the presenter was more confrontational than others had been. In the evening, I went on CNN TV, and a few seconds before we went on air, the presenter said to me: “I don’t see the point of your campaign. Maybe you can tell me.”

By the weekend, the topic was still being discussed, and in more depth. It even made the cover story of the Independent Review section and was still being discussed on TV. Nearly a month since it erupted, news reports are still filtering through.

As media coverage continues to trickle out, gradually subsides, and morphs into other debates, I have been mulling over what happened. Why did it work so well? What can we learn for future campaigns?

The first point to note is the astonishing amount of media coverage. So much attention is unusual for a gender equality story. Feminism exists to expose invisible injustices, and, by its nature, feminism often goes unnoticed too.

The second point of interest is the huge amount of resistance and controversy this story created. People were intrigued, horrified and angry. They wanted to swear and rant. They thought I was mad – or a menace. Controversy sells. This no doubt explains the point above. I am no stranger to resistance. I have been writing a political blog for two years, and – like many other feminist bloggers – I have learned to brush off the trolls like flies on a hot day. Resistance means I have got to the people who matter.

Over the course of writing the blog and interacting with my readership, I have noticed the argument always seems to arrive at the same place. This is the crux: are men and women fundamentally (biologically) different in terms of cognitive (thinking and reasoning) abilities? If yes, sexism can be justified. If not, it can’t.

Many scientific studies have been carried out in this area. They are notoriously difficult to carry out and notoriously difficult to repeat. As yet, there is no scientific consensus that boys and girls are born with differences in aspirations and cognitive abilities, such as problem-solving. Conversely, environmental conditioning is much more likely to affect skill development.

The conditioning by children’s toys – and the segregation of toys in shops – is insidious. Gender stereotypes are highly influential and pervasive, and influence children’s and parents’ choices, aspirations and expectations. Instead of encouraging children to pursue activities according to their individual talents and interests, they encourage children to pursue a narrow range of activities, consistent with stereotypes we see in our society generally (women in passive, caring and homemaking roles; men in active, leading and aggressive roles).

Challenging the segregation of Hamleys toys was at the heart of the nature-nurture issue, and pivotal in feminist debates. At the same time, the upholding of gender stereotypes, and beliefs that men and women, and boys and girls, should behave in certain ways, are strongly ingrained in our society. This means that the debate is always heated. The Hamleys story was loaded with gunpowder. It was a winning formula. When it blew up, the shots went everywhere.

There are other factors too. For a campaign to work, it has to be more than just a good idea.

The first essential factor is support. I learned that this is one of the most important aspects of a campaign; I could not have done what I did without a core of supporters and I am grateful to them. People who backed me up, retweeted, suggested ideas. Many other feminists who have written and campaigned on this issue and continue to make a difference. Friends who sent me messages and called me, during the media deluge, to check in.

The second is strategy. Timing is vital. Planning and communication are key. I will do even more of this next time. The skill is to put in place everything beforehand so it is ready to go off all at once – like putting a match to a dry pile of sticks. Whoosh.

Third, I have realised the importance of courage; of acting despite moments of doubt. In the few weeks before I wrote the letter, I was unsure whether to proceed. I felt the same as when I had once perched on the edge of a cliff, about to jump off with a hang glider. In the end, I reached the ground safely, and I had a brilliant view along the way.

I’m glad I did the campaign, and glad it has opened up debate. The Hamleys story has left it marks.

Laura Nelson

This is an edited version of two blogs first featured on the F word blog in December 2011.

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