When my older daughter turned 9, I thought of the perfect gift, one that would combine her love of sports, competition and raucous game-room fun: a mini foosball table.
My daughter has been kicking around a soccer ball since she was 3. She plays goalie, her ponytail flying as she dives for the ball with grass-stained knees. In summer, she heads to soccer camp in an Alex Morgan Team USA jersey, dribbling down our front path to the car. I can see the subtle lift this identity gives her. Connected to her inner athlete, she feels buoyant, strong and aware of the possibilities of her being.
A table with male figures wouldn’t do.
I searched Amazon again, this time for models with female players specifically. When none appeared, I tried Target, Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Wayfair. Eventually, I discovered one table with women players: a full-size model manufactured in 2011 by the Spanish design company RS Barcelona. It sold for $4,365. It no longer appears on the company’s website.
A disturbing understanding sank in: I would not be giving my daughter a female foosball table; they don’t exist.
On one level, this wasn’t shocking. Here was yet another example of our culture’s lopsided valuing of male athletes — highlighted recently by the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. Read the sports headlines, and it’s usually men highlighted. Turn on ESPN, and it’s typically men on the screen. But there was something about the nonexistence of female foosball tables that brought home the magnitude of this form of gender bias.
Soon, I began to notice the absence of female imagery in all sorts of sports-related toys. I saw that if a figure appeared on the backboard of a basketball net, it was male, typically in silhouette performing a layup. I discovered that if a T-ball bat featured a human, he was male, shown pre-swing. Why, I wondered, when my two daughters and son head off to play, should only one get to see himself mirrored in the equipment?
Title IX was designed to help even the playing field for women in sports, but by the time girls are old enough to benefit from its regulations, they’ve been flooded by messages that athletics aren’t for them. These messages are so pervasive, we hardly notice them. Elizabeth Sweet, a San Jose State University sociologist who studies gender and toys, says: “The fact that the default character in these toys is male really speaks to the way sports are still gendered as masculine in our society. Unconscious bias is deeply embedded in their design and marketing.”
Some might argue that toy companies are just responding to their market — that these products skew male, because more boys gravitate toward sports. But girls and boys participate in youth sports fairly equally. In 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, 31 percent of girls and 39 percent of boys ages 6 to 12 took part regularly in a team sport — not enough of a difference to account for the sports-toy discrepancy.
“There’s an assumption on the part of toy makers that these toys are for boys,” says Sweet, who points out that most leadership positions at toy companies are held by men. “They don’t even see the lack of representation.”
Other experts see the omission as more deliberate. “There’s a perception in marketing that girls will partake in things associated with boys, but that the reverse isn’t true,” says sociologist Cheryl Cooky, author of “No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport, and the Unevenness of Social Change.” Because of our male-advantaged gender hierarchy, she says, there can be cultural value in a girl playing with “boy” things — she becomes “one of the guys.” But “there’s more at stake when boys transgress gender boundaries,” she says. Toy makers don’t want to drive away boys socialized to avoid “girly” things.
I wondered whether others shared my concern. At a brunch with friends, one fellow parent responded to my foosball tale with gentle ribbing: “It’s only a toy!” he said. I understood his message: Lighten up! And on one level, I longed to. It’s no fun being the killjoy. But frivolous as foosball might seem (the word “foosball” alone is ridiculous), I couldn’t shake the feeling that its exclusion of half the population is serious and wondered about the implications.
Fast-forward to adolescence, I learned, and many girls who play youth sports drop out. A 2018 study by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that, among high schoolers, 25 percent more boys take part in team sports than girls, and teen boys are more likely to participate in two or more sports. Foosball tables alone aren’t to blame for this shift. But as Cooky says: “We know that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ It’s not just that there are no female figures on the foosball table, or that the basketball hoop has a boy on the packaging. It’s the hundreds and thousands of ways our culture signals that athleticism is about masculinity and manhood.”
Even before kids are old enough for organized athletics, the gendering of sports toys can have adverse effects. Lisa Dinella, a psychology professor at Monmouth University and co-editor of “Gender Typing of Children’s Toys,” says, “When we make rules about the toys children should or shouldn’t play with, we narrow their opportunities to learn.”
Many male-categorized toys like foosball, Dinella points out, help children develop spatial abilities central to mathematics and physics — STEM fields in which women are underrepresented. They also teach important social skills: “Foosball is a high-speed, intense game typically played with somebody you care about. That social interaction is important, and not just for boys. Girls, too, need to learn: How do you compete? How do you win graciously? How do you not be a sore loser?”
My daughter’s ninth birthday has come and gone, and I didn’t give her a foosball table. I had to choose between embracing a toy I found problematic, or — killjoy alert! — withholding hours of tabletop fun. I just couldn’t bring myself to type in my credit card info and click “Purchase.” My initial impulse was to never mention the unbought present to my daughter — what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, I thought. But this silence felt uncomfortably like complicity. Wasn’t I only adding to the problem?
I sat my daughter down and filled her in. Her first response was outrage over a lost opportunity: You mean to tell me a foosball table could have been mine? But after her own fruitless online search, she was overcome by outrage of a different sort. Awareness of inequity isn’t comfortable, but my daughter learned its galvanizing power. We visited the website of Franklin Sports, a major retailer of athletic games, and she wrote an email asking the company to create a table with girls like her.
Franklin Sports hasn’t, to date, written back, but my daughter isn’t deterred. We’ve made a list of more companies to reach out to, heartened by the perspective of Richard Gottlieb, founder and CEO of Global Toy Experts, a consulting firm.
“I think you’re onto something here,” he says. “There’s a whole market open to some smart businessperson who wants to secure licensing deals with some of the well-known female athletes out there.” In fact, at the World Cup send-off party for the women’s national team late last month, the players were given a one-of-a-kind custom foosball table featuring replicas of all 23 of them — so it’s possible this idea might gain traction.
Until then, my daughter has plenty to occupy her: playing basketball, reading, drawing comics, roughhousing with her siblings. Or careening down the street on the skateboard we gave her for her birthday, her face flushed with joy and the power of her muscles firing beneath her.
Nicole Graev Lipson is a writer based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleGLipson.