From gender Equality to gender Neutrality.

Thinking about the role we want to play.

A few days ago, I made a quick stop at a Starbucks where I used to hang out and headed straight for the men’s room. Then I noticed something. The “men’s” room had been re-labeled as “gender neutral”. I went inside, took care of business and walked out without really making much of it.

This happened the same week that Target announced its stores would begin phasing out some gender-specific product categories and switch to gender-neutral displays and colors. According to a company spokesperson, “Barbies are still going to be with Barbies and Legos will still be with Legos; we just didn’t feel like having a sign that said ‘boys bedding’ was necessary”.

Understandably (to some extent, at least), in the wake of same-sex marriage legalization and other contemporary debates around sexuality, signage changes in coffee shops and department stores have been perceived as insult-upon-injury by some sectors of the population. “The retail giant has jumped on the Caitlyn Jenner bandwagon”, one author wrote.

However, there is a much broader cultural context for these events than sexuality. Let’s start with the fact that Target would not have made this move without having plenty of evidence that it creates an upside potential in revenue. This may seem counterintuitive given that the key motivation for some toy manufactures actively developing two separate markets since the 80’s had been financial growth. But times have changed, and broadening choices for people, so that they can make their own decisions, is emerging as a more promising strategy.

In addition to the economic aspect, there is also an educational one. Target seems to have finally realized what psychologists — and Toys “R” Us — have been saying for years: that children will be better off if they’re not forced into gender boxes. Gender Neutral Parenting (GNP), a parenting style based on respect for a child’s self-identity, provides kids latitude to explore their own version of gender and gender expressions. Although GNP involves the breaking away from the gender binary, a child does not have to display androgynous behaviors in order to evoke GNP practices. Its ultimate goal is to grant children exposure to gender roles so that they are able to think about them at a young age.

Lastly, there is also an issue of social progress. It is a well known fact by now that women make up a declining percentage of the workforce in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) despite the boom in these industries. Several Silicon Valley companies have been criticized for tolerating a misogynistic “brogrammer” culture that reinforces the idea that technology is for men. And this is just one example. The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 has collected critical data for almost a decade, identifying significant correlations between gaps in gender parity and the global competitiveness of over 140 nations.

There is a lot of talk about EQUALITY these days. Given the civil rights and socio-economic tensions that still prevail in the 21st century, it is easy to accept that people feel so passionate about this word. Equal opportunity is a fair expectation for anyone to have in life, and we should absolutely strive for that.

But the term “equality” somehow falls short, because it connotes remediation and comes from a place of protest. It forces institutions and corporations to think about filling quotas. And then what?

Just think about it for a moment. I have never heard anyone explain their success by saying “I’m the same as everyone else”, have you? Deep inside, we are not motivated by “equal” treatment, regardless of how important this might be for personal advancement.

The energy that truly gets us moving is discovering what makes us unique and how we can make a meaningful contribution. This is why NEUTRALITY is a critical part of the equation, as it nurtures freedom of thought and creates space for choice. It is a powerful platform that allows our true nature to unfold and encourages us to set our own course.

What fascinates me about the relative backlash to Target’s new in-store display policy is that it’s coming mostly from women, many of them mothers. While this may not be surprising given the retailer’s skewed demographics, these enthusiastic participants seem to be missing (or ignoring) the bigger idea.

Rachel Giordano, the girl from the famous 1981 Lego ad, is a practicing naturopathic doctor in Seattle, Washington. “Gender segmenting toys interferes with a child’s own creative expression”, she says. “I know that how I played as a girl shaped who I am today. It contributed to me becoming a physician and inspired me to want to help others achieve health and wellness. Doctor kits used to be for all children, but now they are on the boys’ aisle.”
Our society has become so dependent on labels that removing them is often interpreted as a threat, when in reality we all have a better chance of making sense of things without them.

At some point each one of us should have the latitude — and courage — to think about what role we want to play. One that is neutral to what may have worked for others in the past. One that holds true to our personal beliefs. One that makes a difference in the broader scheme of things.