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ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Gender Labels on Gender-Neutral Colors: Do they Affect Children’s Color Preferences and Play Performance?

Sui Ping Yeung1 & Wang Ivy Wong1

Published online: 4 January 2018 # Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2017

Abstract Gender-typed color preferences are widely documented, and there has been increasing concern that they affect children’s play preferences. However, it is unclear whether such color preferences exist across cultures, how they have emerged, and how gender color-coding affects performance. Chinese preschoolers (n = 126) aged 59 to 94 months were tested. First, we assessed their gender-typed color preferences using forced-choice tasks with color cards and pictures of neutral toys in gender-typed colors. Second, we tested if gender labels could affect color preferences by labeling two gender-neutral colors as gender-typed and assessed children’s liking for them using a rating task and a forced-choice task with pictures of neutral toys in the labeled colors. Third, we assigned children a tangram puzzle (i.e., a puzzle using geometric pieces) painted either in the gender-appropriate or gender-inappropriate color and measured the number of pieces they completed and their speed. Results showed that Chinese children exhibited the same gender-typed color preferences as Western children did. Moreover, applying gender labels amplified a gender difference in color preferences, thus providing direct and strong evidence for the social-cognitive pathway underlying gender-typed preferences. Finally, color-coding as gender-appropriate or -inappropriate had no impact on performance but the gender labels improved boys’ performance. These results add to knowledge on how gender-related information affects children’s responses to the social world and suggest that the current gender color divide should be reconsidered.

Keywords Gender labels . Gender color-coding . Color preferences . Play performance . Gender differences

BGender Revolution,^ a special issue of National Geographic Magazine in January 2017, has caught world- wide attention (Goldberg 2017). A striking image is the photo of a transgender nine-year-old girl dressed in pink from head to toe on the cover. Other images show girls and boys surrounded by exclusively pink or blue posses- sions (Zuckerman 2017). It is easy to observe, for in- stance in shops and advertisements, that pink is common- ly used in a wide range of products targeting girls and blue in products targeting boys. Pink and blue have be- come gender-typed as symbols of femaleness and male- ness, respectively, and appear to be the most gender-typed among different colors in the recent decades (Chiu et al.

2006; Del Giudice 2012). The colors themselves can thus serve as visual gender labels (Wong and Hines 2015a).

The prevalence of gender labels and of gender color- coding (i.e., the use of gender-typed colors in differentiat- ing objects by gender) may affect how children respond to the environment as proposed by gender schema theory (Martin and Halverson 1981). The possibility that such labels affect child development has aroused the concerns of parents, educators, and researchers. Although research has demonstrated a gender difference in children’s color preferences and the effects of gender color-coding on chil- dren’s gender assignment of and preferences for toys (Weisgram et al. 2014; Wong and Hines 2015a, b), these studies only provided a picture of the West and did not address how a gender difference in color preferences emerged. Moreover, there is little research on whether gen- der color-coding has behavioral consequences such as af- fecting performance. Therefore, the present study aimed to examine (a) if Chinese children would show gender-typed preferences for pink and blue, (b) if a gender difference in color preferences could be created by merely applying gen- der labels to the colors, and (c) if the colors, after becoming

Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0875-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

* Wang Ivy Wong iwwong@hku.hk

1 Department of Psychology, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong, People’s Republic of China

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gender-typed, would affect children’s performance in their play with materials coded in the color labeled as for their own or the other gender. Findings would contribute to re- vealing the social-cognitive pathway underlying gender- typed color preferences and the potential impacts of gender labels and gender color-coding.

Gender Schema Theory

Gender schema theory (Martin and Halverson 1981) proposed that once children have acquired gender identity, they begin to actively seek out gender-related information from the environ- ment and assimilate the information into their gender schema, which then guides their behavior on what is appropriate or inappropriate for their gender (Fagot and Leinbach 1989; Martin and Ruble 2004; Martin et al. 2002). These standards of gender-appropriateness influence how children interact with their surroundings (Halim and Ruble 2010; Maccoby and Jacklin 1974). An example is that children’s involvement in housework could be affected by parents’ division of labor, with girls performing domestic chores such as cooking (an act usually performed by mothers) and boys performing mainte- nance chores like wall-painting (an act usually performed by fathers) (Antill et al. 1996; Basow 1992).

As for the case of colors, information about the gender attribute of colors may teach children that colors are gen- der-typed. In recent years, the marketing of children’s merchandise has been increasingly gender-specific (Cunningham and Macrae 2011). For instance, Disney products, which dominate the children’s entertainment in- dustry across the globe, are highly gender-typed and pro- vide strong cues in the gender attribute of colors by using pink pervasively in girl-typical toys such as dolls but bold colors including blue in boy-typical toys such as vehicles (Auster and Mansbach 2012). Another example is LEGO®’s BLEGO Friends^ released in 2012. The line is designed for girls, with a lot more pink bricks used relative to traditional LEGO® sets targeting at boys (Black et al. 2016). The use of gender-typed colors in clothing and room décor is also prevalent (Pomerleau et al. 1990; Sweet 2013).

Because different colors are frequently paired with girl- typed or boy-typed objects, and because adults tend to choose products ranging from toys to clothes in these gender-typical colors for children (Kane 2006; Pomerleau et al. 1990), girls and boys have been bombarded with pink and blue, respec- tively, since their early years. Because of frequent exposure to the color divide, children may acquire information that colors are gender-typed, where pink is for girls and blue is for boys (Paoletti 2012). Once children incorporate the gender attribute of colors into their gender schema, they may regard the social- ly constructed Bgender-typical^ colors as appropriate for their

gender and the Bgender-atypical^ colors as inappropriate for their gender.

Gender-Typed Color Preferences and their Origin

Given that pink and blue have been strongly associated with the genders, gender differences in preferences for pink and blue have been found in studies using pure color stimuli (Chiu et al. 2006; Hurlbert and Ling 2007) or real objects of different colors (LoBue and DeLoache 2011; Picariello et al. 1990) and employing methods such as forced choices (LoBue and DeLoache 2011; Wong and Hines 2015b), observations (Wong and Hines 2015a) or self-report (Cohen 2013; Ellis and Ficek 2001). For ex- ample, when children aged 3–6 years-old were presented with toy felt pigs of different colors, girls tended to choose the pink one and boys the one in dark colors (e.g., navy blue) as their favorite (Picariello et al. 1990). When children aged around 2–3 years-old were asked to choose from pairs of identical objects in pink or blue or to play with identical toys in pink or blue, girls preferred pink items more and boys preferred blue items more (Wong and Hines 2015b).

However, these studies were conducted with Western sam- ples. Some research examined the color preferences of Asians such as Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian. However, they did not focus on children or on gender differences (Chattopadhyay et al. 2010; Saito 1994, 1996). It is unclear whether children from the East share the same gender-typed color preferences as Western children do, with girls preferring pink more and boys preferring blue more. Research with Chinese children could show the prevalence of such gender- typed color preferences in different cultures.

We should note that the origin of gender-typed color pref- erences is still unclear. Some researchers suggested that they are inborn, originating from differences in cone-contrast sen- sitivity underlying the visual system evolved from gender role divisions (e.g., hunting vs. fruit-picking) of early humans (Alexander 2003; Hurlbert and Ling 2007). Yet, this proposi- tion has been challenged. A recent study found gender differ- ences in the color preferences of British adults but not Himba adults (a nonindustrialized population), suggesting that gender-typed pink-blue preferences are not universal and are culturally based (Taylor et al. 2013). In addition, gender-typed preferences for pink and blue only appear to emerge when children turn 2 years-old (Jadva et al. 2010; LoBue and DeLoache 2011) and to become stronger as children grow older (Wong and Hines 2015b).

Chiu et al. (2006) provided further insight into the cause of gender-typed color preferences by comparing the color preferences of children with and without gender

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identity disorder (GID), who express distress about their sex assigned at birth and identify themselves as the other gender. They found that girls without GID preferred pink more than did boys without GID but such preferences were reversed among children with GID, suggesting that these preferences result from identification with gender norms. Another evidence that the gender-typing of these colors is a cultural product is the finding that society’s perception of these colors can be different across time. In the early 1900s, the pink-blue divide was not as rigid as today (Del Giudice 2017). Pink was sometimes viewed as a more masculine color whereas blue was sometimes regarded as a more feminine color (Paoletti 1987).

The non-universality, late emergence of the gender dif- ferences, the reversal of gender-typed color preferences among children with and without GID, and the malleabil- ity of the colors’ gendered nature imply a social-cognitive pathway of gender-typed color preferences. Specifically, verbal gender labels have been shown to affect children’s perception of objects’ gender attribute and interest. When toys are labeled as for girls or for boys, children like the toys labeled as for their own gender more than the toys labeled as for the other gender (Masters et al. 1979; Weisgram et al. 2014). Although these studies showed that children establish gender-based knowledge when gen- der labels are applied to concrete materials (i.e., the toys), children may also establish gender-based knowledge on abstract qualities such as shapes and colors (Bem 1981; Leinbach et al. 1997). When gender labels are applied to gender-neutral abstract qualities such as colors, the colors may become gender-typed and their gender attribute may be assimilated into children’s gender schema, which may then increase children’s liking for the color labeled as for their own gender.

However, the possibility that gender differences for ab- stract qualities such as colors can emerge through a random labeling mechanism has not been tested directly. All the known studies that have so far been said to support a social- cognitive pathway for the gender difference in pink-blue pref- erences only provide indirect evidence. They are either based on whether the gender difference is found in certain cultures (e.g., Taylor et al. 2013) or on the age the gender difference is found or not (e.g., LoBue and DeLoache 2011). An experi- ment that manipulates the social-cognitive factors and that eventually creates a gender difference would offer direct and strong evidence for the social-cognitive pathway of gender- typed color preferences. Therefore, we tested whether apply- ing gender labels to gender-neutral colors would affect girls’ and boys’ liking for these colors and create a gender difference in their color preferences. This evidence may help explain how, from a social-cognitive perspective, colors such as pink and blue, which might have been originally gender-neutral, have become gender-typed.

Behavioral Consequences

When colors become gender-typed, they can serve as vi- sual gender labels that define the gender-appropriateness of objects. Thus, gender color-coding has been found to affect children’s gender assignment of toys. Children aged 3-years-old already understand the gender-typing of pink and blue (Martin et al. 2012; Ruble and Martin 1998) and assign toys to girls or boys based on their colors (Cunningham and Macrae 2011; Weisgram et al. 2014). Color is children’s most frequently cited reason when they sort ambiguous or neutral toys by gender (Cherney and Dempsey 2010). Gender color-coding also affects chil- dren’s own preferences, with children expressing greater verbal interest for toys painted in gender-typical colors (Weisgram et al. 2014) and playing with the gender- atypical toy more when it is painted in a gender-typical color than when it is painted in a gender-atypical color (Wong and Hines 2015a).

Although these studies reveal the effects of gender color- coding on gender assignment of and preferences for objects, it is largely unknown whether gender color-coding would have other behavioral consequences. The current debate on the use of colors to intervene in play preferences is mainly concerned with how to encourage children, girls in particular, to play more with boy-typical toys as a way to improve spatial skills (Casey et al. 2008; Jirout and Newcombe 2015). Some sug- gest applying gender-typed colors to gender-atypical toys (Black et al. 2016) whereas others suggest removing the color divide altogether in order to avoid creating new gender stereo- types (Cunningham and Macrae 2011). Studies examining the play performance of children in the face of materials coded in gender-appropriate, gender-inappropriate, or gender-neutral colors will help to evaluate the developmental consequences of using colors as an intervention for children’s play.

Only two known studies examined the effect of color on play performance. One examined the effect of the color of a masculine construction toy, LEGO® bricks, on children’s play performance (Fulcher and Hayes 2017). The authors employed the idea of stereotype threat (i.e., an awareness of being judged adversely based on stereotypes; Spencer et al. 1999) and hypothesized that feminine colors would activate girls’ stereotypes about inferior performance on a masculine task and thus girls, but not boys, would perform worse when they receive feminine-colored bricks (i.e., pink/purple) than when they receive masculine-colored bricks (i.e., blue/green). Results did not support this hypothesis; when children were instructed to build certain objects, brick color had no impact on the speed or accuracy of girls’ or boys’ construction. Another study (Mulvey et al. 2017) assessed engineering ap- titude of preschool and primary school children when they were given feminine-colored (i.e., pastel colors) or masculine-colored (i.e., primary colors) engineering materials.

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They hypothesized that counter-stereotypic colors would im- pede performance, especially that of boys, because it is more difficult for boys to act in counter-stereotypic ways. However, their study also found no main or interaction effects of color. These studies suggest that gender color-coding has a minimal effect on children’s play performance.

However, it is too early to conclude that color has no im- pact on performance. Past research consistently showed that the gender-appropriateness of tasks affected how children per- formed. When a gender-neutral perceptual motor task was labeled as relating to electronics (i.e., stereotypically boy-typ- ical) or to needlework (i.e., stereotypically girl-typical), chil- dren performed better when the labels were consistent with their gender (Davies 1986‚ 1989; Hargreaves et al. 1985). Other research showed that when children were told that an unfamiliar gender-neutral toy game was designed for their own gender, they tended to be more attracted to it and perform better (Montemayor 1977). This enhanced perfor- mance was suggested to be caused by an increased interest: when children feel interested, they become more attentive, more persistent, and more motivated to work hard on the task (Hidi 2000; Locke and Latham 1990; Van Yperen 2003). Because gender-typed colors provide cues about the gender- appropriateness of objects and affect interest (Weisgram et al. 2014), and because gender-appropriateness of the tasks can affect performance (Davies 1986), it is possible that colors, after becoming gender-typed, would serve as visual gender labels denoting the gender-appropriateness, alter interest, and as a result affect the performance of both girls and boys. Children engaging in a gender-neutral task (instead of a ste- reotype-relevant, masculine task as in Fulcher and Hayes 2017, and Mulvey et al. 2017) but assigned task materials coded in the color labeled as for their own gender (i.e., gen- der-appropriate) may perform better than those playing with materials coded in the color labeled as for the other gender (i.e., gender-inappropriate).

The Present Study

Given that it is unexamined whether gender-typed color pref- erences exist among children in the East, that the social- cognitive pathway of such preferences is still unclear, and that little is known about the behavioral consequences of gender color-coding, we proposed three sets of hypotheses. First, concerning preferences for pink versus blue, like Western chil- dren, we expect that Chinese girls will like pink more and boys will like blue more (Hypothesis 1).

Second, concerning the social-cognitive pathway, when gender labels are applied to gender-neutral colors, children will show a greater liking for the color labeled as for their own gender than for the color labeled as for the other gender and more so than will children in the condition where no

gender labels are applied (Hypothesis 2a). A between-gender difference in the preferences for these colors will also emerge when gender labels are applied, with girls preferring the girl- labeled color more than boys do and boys preferring the boy- labeled color more than girls do (Hypothesis 2b). Third, concerning the impact of gender color-coding, when gender labels are applied to the gender-neutral colors, children, both girls and boys, playing with materials painted in the color labeled as for their own gender will perform better than those playing with materials painted in the color labeled as for the other gender (Hypothesis 3).

Because our study investigated the effects of gender labels and gender color-coding on girls’ and boys’ cognition and behavior, it was important to study children who were able to identify their own gender and were at the stage of active acquisition of gender-related information (Martin and Halverson 1981). According to cognitive-developmental the- ory, gender development goes through three stages: gender identity, gender stability, and gender consistency (Kohlberg 1966). Although some research shows that not all children pass through these stages linearly (Cohen-Kettenis and Pfäfflin 2003), reviews have found that most children acquire gender identity at the age of two (Ruble et al. 2007; Zosuls et al. 2009). In addition, when children reach five years of age and before they reach the consistency stage around 7-years- old, they become very rigid in following gender norms (Ruble et al. 2007; Serbin et al. 1993). Therefore, we studied children at preschool years aged around 5–7 years-old.

Method

Participants

We recruited 129 preschoolers from two kindergartens in Hong Kong. Three participants were excluded from analyses: One boy was reported by his parent as having color weakness, one girl had an outlier value with a z-score above 3 on the tangram task (i.e., a puzzle using geometric pieces), and one girl withdrew. The remaining 126 participants had normal color vision and no learning difficulties as reported by their parents. All participants were Chinese, aged 59 to 94 months (M = 67.89 [5.66 years], SD = 5.59). There were 61 boys (48.4%; Mage = 68.10 months, SD = 6.28) and 65 girls (51.6%; Mage = 67.69 months, SD = 4.89). One parent of each participant completed a questionnaire on demographic char- acteristics. Four parents (3.2%) did not report monthly house- hold income. Of others who did, the income ranged from HKD8,000 to HKD100,000 (i.e., around US$1025–12,820) with a mean of HKD35,557 (i.e., around US$4558) and a standard deviation of HKD21,458 (i.e., around US$2751). Three parents (2.4%) did not report their own and their spouse’s education level. Of those who did, 35.8% of fathers

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(n = 45) and 29.4% of mothers (n = 37) had tertiary qualifica- tions, 32.5% of fathers (n = 41) and 42.9% of mothers (n = 54) completed high school, and 29.4% of fathers (n = 37) and 25.4% of mothers (n = 32) completed junior secondary edu- cation or below.

Design and Procedure

The full design was a 2 (Gender: girls vs. boys) × 2 (Label: yes vs. no) × 2 (Color-coding: gender- appropriate vs. gender-inappropriate). Participants were randomly assigned to the experimental (label) or the con- trol (no label) group. Only the label group was exposed to gender labels (Girls x Label: n = 34; Girls x No label: n = 31; Boys x Label: n = 30; Boys x No label: n = 31). They were then further randomly assigned to the gender- appropriate or the gender-inappropriate color condition (with n = 15 as the smallest cell size). Those in the gender-appropriate condition received play materials (i.e., tangram puzzles that use geometric pieces) in the color labeled as for their gender and those in the gender- inappropriate condition received play materials in the col- or labeled as for the other gender.

Our study had received ethical approval from an institu- tional research ethics committee of a local university. All chil- dren participated with the written consent of their parent. Children’s verbal assent was also obtained prior to the exper- iment. Children were tested individually in a quiet room in the kindergarten by a female experimenter. The experimenter wore black so as not to provide any color cues.

We first assessed children’s preferences for pink versus blue by showing them pink-blue pairs of color cards and pictures of toys. After that, we evaluated children’s pre- exiting likings for two colors that were found to be gender-neutral in a pilot test, yellow and green, by show- ing them yellow and green color cards. After this came the manipulation procedure. Only children in the label group were told that yellow is a color for girls and green for boys. The manipulation was checked by asking chil- dren to indicate which color is for girls and which is for boys. After the manipulation, children’s new preferences fo