Blue Is For Boys AND Girls

What your favourite color reveals about your ideas about gender.

Posted Sep 07, 2018

Photo by Li Tzuni on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Li Tzuni on Unsplash

At the time of writing, I am five months pregnant. Although our child won’t be born for several months, my partner and I couldn’t resist doing some shopping for baby clothes. It quickly became clear that color is still very gendered for children: Most stores were clearly divided into sections for baby boys—mainly blue—and sections for baby girls—mainly pink. Indeed, research has shown that, by the age of two, girls are already over-exposed to pink clothes and toys compared to boys. Interestingly, two years is also the age when children become aware of their own gender and what society considers “appropriate” for boys vs. girls.

I recently came across an interesting article on this very topic of gender and colors: Researchers at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland investigated whether favorite colors differed between boys and girls, and whether these differences are also present in adulthood. Their results can tell us what our favorite colors reveal about our ideas about gender.

What are the favorite colors of girls vs. boys, and women vs. men?

In Study 1, 131 girls and boys between 10 and 14 years old selected their favorite color using a color picker, which allowed them to select from all the possible colors that a computer screen can produce. In Study 2, 179 women and men between 18 and 48 years old selected their favorite color using the same color picker. You might want to try the color picker yourself (click here) before reading further. After the color preferences were collected, the researchers coded them into categories (e.g., pink, blue, red).

Surprisingly, in Study 1, blue was the most common favorite color among both boys and girls. There were no differences in the percentage of boys vs. girls who chose blue as their favorite color. Pink was the second-most common favorite color among girls, but was almost never chosen as a favorite color by boys. 

Similarly, in Study 2, blue was the most common favorite color among both men and women. Again, there were no differences in the percentage of men vs. women who chose blue as their favorite color. In contrast to Study 1, women rarely chose pink as their favorite color, and it was equally unpopular among men.

Are color preferences explained by emotions?

The researchers also conducted a third study, to be sure that color preferences were not merely explained by the emotions that we associate with certain colors. In Study 3, 183 men and women indicated the emotions they associate with each color using the Geneva Emotion Wheel. Again, you can try it out for yourself (click here) before reading on. The key finding of Study 3 is that both women and men evaluated pink as being associated with positive emotions, to the same intensity as blue.

Take-home message

Most boys and girls, and most men and women, choose blue as their favorite color. Hence, despite the popular association between blue and boys/men, it seems that all people—regardless of gender—tend to favor blue.

The authors theorize that gendered color preferences might have more to do with pink than with blue. Further, because pink was only the second favorite color of girls, the gender differences might best be explained by boys almost never choosing pink as their favorite color, rather than girls especially liking pink. In addition, women and men almost never favored pink. The authors concluded that “one of the least likely favorite colors of boys, men, and women, is pink” (p. 9). So what is going on here?

As determined by Study 3, favorite colors cannot merely be explained by the emotions that we associate with them, as both men and women associated pink with positive emotions, to the same intensity as blue.

Instead, the authors reason that it may have more to do with gender stereotypes: Despite social progress for women in many societies, research has shown that the male gender is still considered the more prestigious, high-status gender. These associations between gender and status could explain why boys avoid girls’ toys more than girls avoid boys’ toys, and why girls in middle school shift toward endorsing more masculine behaviours and preferences yet there is no shift toward femininity for boys. Similarly, in adulthood, men tend to shun stereotypically feminine activities more than women shun stereotypically masculine activities.

The associations between gender and status could also explain favorite colors: Pink is associated with being a girl and with femininity, and so choosing pink as a favorite color would be undesirable because it is the mark of a lower-status social category compared to more masculine “higher-status” colors, like blue.

Up to now, my partner and I had been avoiding buying (only) blue clothing for our baby boy. Yet, this research teaches us that blue is actually less gendered than pink. It might not be easy, but I hope that we can raise our son in a way that makes him feel that femininity and being a girl is no better or worse than masculinity and being a boy.

References

Jonauskaite, D., Dael, N., Chèvre, L., Althaus, B., Tremea, A., Charalambides, L., & Mohr, C. (2018). Pink for girls, red for boys, and blue for both genders: Colour preferences in children and adults. Sex Roles. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-0955-z

Croft, A., Schmader, T., & Block, K. (2015). An underexamined inequality: Cultural and psychological barriers to men’s engagement with communal roles. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19, 343–370. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868314564789.

Fiske, S. T. (2010). Interpersonal stratification: Status, power, and subordination. In Handbook of social psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470561119.socpsy002026

McHale, S. M., Kim, J.-Y., Dotterer, A. M., Crouter, A. C., & Booth, A. (2009). The development of gendered interests and personality qualities from middle childhood through adolescence: A bio-social analysis. Child Development, 80, 482–495. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01273.x

O’Brien, M. (1992). Gender identity and sex roles. In Handbook of social development (pp. 325–345). Boston, MA: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-0694-6_13

Pomerleau, A., Bolduc, D., Malcuit, G., & Cossette, L. (1990). Pink or blue: Environmental gender stereotypes in the first two years of life. Sex Roles, 22, 359–367. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00288339

United Nations Development Programme. (2013). 2013 Human development report. Retrieved January 29, 2018, from http://hdr.undp.org/en/2013-report

Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shrout, P. E., Bornstein, M. H., & Greulich, F. K. (2009). The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: Implications for gender-typed play. Developmental Psychology, 45, 688–701. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014053