Gender Inclusive Photos for Youth Programming: Appearances Matter

I received an email from the director of a youth programs center asking to use photos of my children playing sports in their marketing materials. I declined for numerous reasons, the main one being that I am unfamiliar with their program and only endorse products/media I have closely vetted.

That said, I decided to take the opportunity to offer some unsolicited advice:

I would like to offer a bit of advice from a media literacy/marketing perspective — your link as it is now shows girls doing ballet and boys engaged in chess, science, and reading. That would not go over well with my community of 20,000+ parents who are very vocal in their desire for a gender equal childhood for their (all) children. One place I use for awesome stock photos is yadda yadda yadda….. Each image is a dollar and has a standard license for royalty free use. When I typed in “kids playing chess” I found several images that showed a boy and girl playing chess together. Same if I do “boy and girl ballet”. By making each of your course offerings very clearly open to both boys and girls you instantly double your market. While many parents are actively fighting the gender stereotypes presented to children, others may still be thinking and operating in a very binary system and would never have considered chess for their daughter had the suggestion not been inconspicuously put there by the photo. That’s how marketing works, right? Suggest to the consumer they need/want what they didn’t know they needed/wanted. 

The push for girls and STEM is huge among parents right now, and ballet training can be incredibly beneficial to boys who love dance/music/movement, but also for boys who long to be amazing football players (aka Lynn Swann’s amazing sideline foot work).  Kids’ interests in activities are sparked by all kinds of things, and a child looking over a brochure or website might see a boy doing ballet and think, “Hey that looks awesome, I want to try that!” Kids also love having a friend in the class, so now you have two enrollment spots filled by two boys doing ballet or a brother/sister combo signed up for chess. It just seems like good business to widen the market for potential clients, especially as so many community programs (summer programs in particular) are overly and unnecessarily gendered. Your course descriptions are wonderfully non-gendered and I’d love to see photos that mirror that kind of gender inclusiveness. 

I think you might have a lot of luck using the site I mentioned for images that best represent the quality youth programming your organization seems to offer. 

Thanks much, 


Representations of gender matter, whether it is youth programming brochures and websites to the instructions for board games. What is familiar to us becomes our norm, and when we are speaking of gender this usually means girls and their abilities and contributions are minimized or left out altogether. Even when this is done without intent (as is often the case), the message lingers and still works to shape young minds and reinforce dated stereotypes in older minds.

I’m pleased to report I had an immediate response to my email from the program director that assured he and his staff do give consideration to gender representations in their materials and had had trouble finding better photos that demonstrated this. Hopefully they’ll have better luck with the site I referred them to. The director also said they have an equal number of girls as boys registered for their upcoming chess class – kudos to those parents who don’t limit their daughters to ballet, cheer, and princess camps! Our kids thrive the most when we allow them the space to show us how Full of Awesome they really are, in all of their unique and special ways.

Moral of the story: Use your voice. It is important to call out the folks who are getting it wrong and perpetuating gender stereotypes in childhood. But it is just as important to give praise to the folks who are trying to do better and who are getting it right.

Dance is a beautiful part of being human. Humans are comprised of girls AND boys.

Dance is a beautiful part of being human. Humans are comprised of girls AND boys.


That’s more like. Both girls and boys can be master chess players.


  1. When I was shopping for my Niece and Nephew I spotted an archery set display. The boxes were in two sets on the shelves the group on the left had a boy, the group on the right had a girl – same pose. I picked up the kit and realized the boxes had both pictures one on each side. So the store had made deliberate display decision to show both sides of the box.

    I was actually shopping for a skateboard. The gentleman that helped me asked “How old and how tall is the child? The sales person did not use a male pronoun – until I said it was for my nephew who is 7 yo, a bit taller than average, and a snowboarder.

    I also heard another employee explaining that “girls” bikes were designed to accommodate skirts back when ladies weren’t allowed to wear pants- that there was no reason for the difference now other than ‘that is the way we have always done it’ so to pick the bike that best fit the person. That bikes like this – and he showed them a bike that had a slanted bar lower nearer the seat, but not curved low like traditional girls bikes, seemed safer for both boys and girls if they should fall it would be less painful especially for trails..

    When I got home – I immediately e-mailed the store praising them for both the display and wonderful attitude of their employees.

    • Melissa Atkins Wardy says:

      Kimberly –
      That is fantastic to hear and thank you for using your voice to give a shout out to the folks who are getting it right!!

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