Furious Backlash Over Sexist School Shoes – But Will Things Ever Change?

Girls' shoes are often flimsy and made to look pretty while boys' shoes are robust and made for playing (Shutterstock)

The dreaded end of summer School Shoes Shopping Day may be out of our lives once and for all, but since the children currently being dragged around shoe shops are the future feminists our society is attempting to raise, the (not exactly shocking, sigh) news that sexism is both rife and explicit when it comes to something as seemingly innocuous as school shoes is something we felt compelled to report on.

Clarks has been called out for a range of school shoes that perpetuate damaging gender stereotypes to a level so blatant it baffles us how anyone thought it was a good idea.

It’s not even purely about pink and blue either, much as we find the idea that colour has a gender ridiculous. No, these shoes have gone one step further. These shoes have names. The flimsy girls’ shoe is called Dolly Babe, which is gross enough in itself, until you notice that the robust boys’ footwear is called Leader, suggesting in no uncertain terms that girls should stick to playing with dolls and looking pretty while boys go on to dominate their chosen field and be taken seriously for their personalities, intelligence and talents.

Dolly Babes come with heart-patterned insoles and Leaders come with football-patterned ones, as a side note. Just in case you had forgotten that girls live to find romance and only boys can play football.  No wonder 49 per cent of girls drop out of sports altogether once they reach puberty, as Paula Cocozza points out in the Guardian. “By assuming inactivity, retailers connive in girls’ future sporting disinheritance,” she writes.

This shocking but sadly not that surprising case of everyday sexism was brought to our attention by Miranda Williams, a Greenwich councillor and cabinet member for children and young people, who was “appalled” to find the “purely offensive and inappropriate” shoes while shopping online for her four-year-old twin daughters.

Carolyn Harris, shadow minister for women and equalities, backed Williams up, criticising the “blatant discrimination” of the range, while Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, said it“shows what we are still up against”.

The Dolly Babe has been pulled from the Clarks website, with the company insisting that it has a “gender neutral ethos”. The shoes are also being removed from stores. The Leader remains on sale.

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Clarks insists it has a ‘gender neutral ethos’

Shevolution approached Clarks for comment on the issue, to which a spokesperson replied: “The Dolly Babe shoe is an old and discontinued line with only remaining stock being sold through our stores.

“However, following customer feedback regarding the name, we have removed the shoe from sale online and are in the process of removing the name from the remaining stock in store, though this process will take time to complete.

“We are working hard to ensure our ranges reflect our gender neutral ethos and we apologise for any unintended offence caused.”

Petitions and angry Facebook posts

Clarks has been criticised for its sexist footwear before. In 2014, more than 3,000 people signed a petition against in-store adverts suggesting that boys needed shoes for running around in while girls only needed to look pretty.

“Because boys test their shoes to destruction, so do we,” read one poster, while another (pink, naturally) read: “Because girls love comfort and style, we design both into our shoes.”

The company apologised, but last September, the “fussy and unpractical” shoes offered to girls in comparison with the “sensible, practical, durable ranges designed for boys” once again came under attack, this time by mum Laura Greenwood.

“It’s time to listen to what parents are asking for, to treat boys and girls as creatures that are more similar than different and provide them with footwear that is fit for purpose no matter how they play,” she wrote in a lengthy Facebook post, which quickly went viral as hundreds of parents shared their anger and frustration.

Still not taking note

Clarks promised to revamp its selection and develop more unisex shoes but earlier this month, Jemma Moonie-Dalton still found herself struggling to find the right shoes for her seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.

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“In the boys’ section the shoes are sturdy, comfortable and weatherproof with soles clearly designed with running and climbing in mind,” she wrote, also on Facebook. “In contrast, the girls’ shoes have inferior soles, are not fully covered and are not well padded at the ankle. They are not comfortable and are not suited to outdoor activities in British weather.

“What messages are you giving to my daughter? That she doesn’t deserve shoes that put her on equal ‘footing’ with her male peers? That she should be satisfied with looking stylish while the boys are free to play and achieve in comfort? That she shouldn’t try and compete with boys when they play chase – girls’ shoes aren’t made for speed, so perhaps girls aren’t either? These messages may not be explicit but they are there and are insidious.

“I understand, of course, that anyone can choose any style, but children are not stupid, and my seven-year-old daughter does not want to choose shoes from a section aggressively marketed at boys and clearly not intended for her.”

Clarks, of course, is not the only shoe shop to blame – this problem is apparent almost everywhere, with Tesco being called out only recently for similarly depressing reasons.

Is there hope?

It can feel hopeless when gender stereotyping persists to such an extent all around us, but the UK’s advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, intends to crack down on adverts that reinforce gender stereotypes or mock those who do not conform to them. Examples include mums seen being left to do all the cooking and cleaning and dads failing at simple parenting and household jobs.

Its latest review suggests that new guidelines consider whether an advert would “reinforce assumptions that adversely limit how people see themselves and how others see them”.

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