Shoes retailer Clarks is one of the most level-headed companies on the high street, with scarcely a trace of controversy to its name. However, the firm has recently come under heavy flak for calling one of its shoe brands for girls the ‘Dolly Babe’. At the same time, critics noted, Clarks named a shoe range intended for boys of the same age the ‘Leader’.

The brand-name choices – which suggest not only a clear male/female divide, but a vast difference in the potential social roles to which children can aspire – were roundly attacked on social media. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “It is almost beyond belief that in 2017 a major company could think this is in any way acceptable. Shows what we are still up against.”

Meanwhile, Greenwich councillor Miranda Williams told The Sunday Times, “The idea that we should be bringing up a generation of boys to aspire to become leaders while the best hope for girls is to be Dolly Babes is just grim.”

Clarks said that following “customer feedback regarding the name”, it had removed the Dolly Babe from sale online, and was in the process of removing product’s remaining in-store stock. The manufacturer added: “We are working hard to ensure our ranges reflect our gender-neutral ethos, and we apologise for any unintended offence caused.”

However, in many consumers’ eyes the damage is done, with the scathing coverage highlighting a somewhat antiquated turn of mind in the Clarks marketing department.

What are the dangers of the message that such branding decisions could be sending to young people?

“Issues around children’s gender-role expectations are incredibly live at the moment,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “I was interested to note that they were even the subject of a phone-in on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour on 21 August. The whole programme is well worth a listen, but at the 19:54 mark, a Twitter user called Anna tells the presenting team that at a parents’ evening, her daughter’s female teacher said, ‘Boys are born to lead; girls are born to please.’ It’s so disheartening to hear, and shows that every generation learns the same lessons, over and over again, about how boys and girls are respectively meant to apply themselves.”

Cooper explains: “We’re still talking about sexism in primary schools in the same way that we were a generation ago. Perhaps we have seen incremental, marginal changes – but not the type of sweeping improvements that are needed to overhaul the underlying nature of the conversation. We even saw evidence of these problems in how the media portrayed the recent A-level results, with a huge fanfare over how boys had done better than girls for the first time in 17 years. The publication of the grades was quickly swamped in gender-based coverage, rather than a more positive take on achievements across the board – and how the students planned to make the most of those achievements.”

She adds: “The problem of how gender bias drives selectiveness for social roles is no closer to being solved. As I’ve argued time and time again, the ultimate effect of that bias is to narrow down talent pools. We still have to pay attention to this problem – but if we’re having to pay this level of attention to gender, what about the other prejudices and barriers that people must be experiencing?

“Organisations must examine the changes they’ve introduced, and ask themselves how many are truly embedded within their cultures, and how many are little more than superficial, marketing-comms responses that are unlikely to stand up in the long term.”

For further thoughts on appreciating diversity, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Clarks signage courtesy of designs by Jack, via Shutterstock