In the fall of 2008, when I was 11 years old, I wrote to the CEO of McDonald's and asked him to change the way his stores sold Happy Meals. I expressed my frustration that McDonald's always asked if my family preferred a "girl toy" or a "boy toy" when we ordered a Happy Meal at the drive-through. My letter asked if it would be legal for McDonald's "to ask at a job interview whether someone wanted a man's job or a woman's job?"
A few weeks later, I received a short response from a McDonald's customer satisfaction representative claiming that McDonald's doesn't train their employees to ask whether Happy Meal customers want boys' or girls' toys, and my experiences were not the norm.
This response was unsatisfying, so I visited a dozen local McDonald's locations with my father to collect data. Ultimately, we brought a complaint to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against McDonald's for discriminating on the basis of sex. Despite our evidence showing that, in our test, McDonald's employees described the toys in gendered terms nearly all of the time, the commission dismissed our allegations as "absurd" and solely for the purposes of "titillation and sociological experimentation." All in all, this was a pretty humiliating defeat.
But I still couldn't let it go. When the commission was considering our claims in 2008, one of the McDonald's stores claimed that if I had just asked for a boy's toy they would have been happy to oblige. So this past summer, we decided to test this assertion.
In a series of 30 visits, we sent boys and girls, ages 7-11, into 15 McDonald's stores to independently order a Happy Meal at the counter. We found that 92.9 percent of the time, the store, without asking, simply gave each child the toy that McDonald's had designated for that child's gender — a Justice fashion toy for girls and a Power Rangers toy for boys. What's worse was the trouble the children encountered when they immediately returned to the counter and asked to exchange their unopened toy: 42.8 percent of stores refused to exchange for an opposite-sex toy.
In the most egregious instance, a McDonald's employee asked a girl, "Would you like the girl's toy?" The girl responded, "No, could I have the boy's toy?" When the girl opened the container a moment later, she learned that notwithstanding her explicit request, a McDonald's employee had given her the girl's toy. This girl went back to the counter with the unopened toy and requested, "May I have a boy's toy, please?" The same McDonald's employee replied, "There are only girl's toys." We then sent an adult male into the store who immediately was given a boy's toy.
I again wrote to the CEO of McDonald's, now Donald Thompson, sharing the results of our recent study. On Dec. 17, I received an amazing letter back from McDonald's chief diversity officer, Patricia Harris, saying, "It is McDonald's intention and goal that each customer who desires a Happy Meal toy be provided the toy of his or her choice, without any classification of the toy as a 'boy' or 'girl' toy and without any reference to the customer's gender. We have recently reexamined our internal guidelines, communications and practices and are making improvements to better ensure that our toys are distributed consistent with our policy."
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Even more heartening, DoSomething.org just posted a photo of a manager's notice on the wall of an actual McDonald's store instructing employees: "When a customer orders a happy meal you must ask 'will that be a My Little Pony toy? Or a Skylanders toy?' We will no longer refer to them as 'boy or girl toys.' "
While this notice does not ensure that all McDonald's locations will stop treating a kid differently because of his or her gender, it's a start. The problem with Happy Meal toys may seem trivial to some, but consider this: McDonald's is estimated to sell more than 1 billion Happy Meals each year. When it poses this question — "Do you want a boy's toy or a girl's toy?" — McDonald's pressures innumerable children to conform to gender stereotypes.
Retailers don't need to use girl's and boy's categories when they can just describe the toys that are available and let kids choose the ones that appeal to them most.
Antonia Ayres-Brown is a high-school junior in New Haven, Conn. She wrote this column for Slate.com.