Parents who dress their daughters in pink are steering them towards lower-paid jobs when they grow up, a Government minister has said.
Jenny Willott, the Consumer Affairs minister, ignited the debate over gender stereotyping by saying girls who played with dolls were more likely to end up in less well paid caring occupations like nursing rather than more lucrative careers in science, technology and engineering.
She said this led to an over-representation of women among nurses – and of men among engineers and physicists.
Miss Willott said: "It is a really important issue and it's fundamentally important to our economy as well, it's not just a side issue as I think it sometimes can be portrayed.
"It is a really important one to the future economy of this country. All of us who have young children can't help but be aware of how highly gendered children's toys are."
She added: "Some of it does come down to the simple fact that we don't encourage girls to believe in their own potential and explore the full range of skills that they may have."
She added: "It costs our economy significant amounts. There are skills shortages across science, technology, engineering and maths. As long as our girls continue to feel that that world is not for them our businesses will continue to miss out on vital talent.
"We can't afford not to allow girls the opportunity to enjoy and pursue the whole range of subjects starting right at the beginning through their learning through play."
Miss Willott told MPs that it was only recently that toys were marketed as 'pink for girls, blue for boys'.
She said toys in the 1970s were much more neutrally coloured with 'far more bright primary colours, orange, yellow, green, red'.
She said if the 'iconic orange' space hopper were invented today 'there would be one that is pink and looks like a cupcake and there would be one that that is camouflaged khaki'.
She said: "It is not fair to make little girls feel that they should not be kicking footballs or building with Lego. And it is not fair to make little boys feel ashamed of playing netball or playing with a push chair or pushing a doll along."
By labelling some toys as 'not for you' parents were limiting their children's future career choices.
She said: "It starts at a very young age. We mustn't limit that at the age of two, five or 10 by restricting their choices of play."
Government officials had raised the problem with retailers, which were slowly taking action, she said.
Debenhams has stopped gender specific labelling of toys – Mark and Spencer was now its own brand of toys more 'gender neutral'.
Earlier Labour MP Chi Onwurah pointed out that it was 'illegal to advertise a job as for men only but apparently fine to advertise a toy as for boys only. Why should girls be brought up in an all pink environment? It does not reflect the real world'.
Miss Onwurah said she became an aunt to boy and girl twins on Tuesday.
She said: "As you can guess I did not welcome them into this world with gender specific or colour coded toys.
"But I do hope that as they grow through childhood they have the chance to play with toys which are toys and not colour-coded constraints on their choices."