Sex Discrimination in Toy Choice at McDonald’s

In a small-scale pilot study that we conducted 5 years ago and in a follow-up study conducted in 2013, we found two distinct types of sex discrimination in McDonald’s marketing of Happy Meal toys.

First, at the drive-thru window McDonald’s employees had a strong tendency to ask customers ordering Happy Meals the sex of the customer’s child (“Is it for a boy or a girl?”) and then included different types of toys for each sex.

Second, our 2013 visits found that franchises also treated unaccompanied children ordering Happy Meals differently because of their sex. In 92.9% of the visits, the stores, without asking the child about her or his toy preference, just gave the toy that they had designated for that sex. Moreover, 42.8% of stores refused to offer opposite-sex toys even after the child re-approached the counter and affirmatively asked to exchange the unopened toy for an alternative. In the most egregious instance, a girl, after twice asking for a “boy’s toy,” was told there were only “girl’s toys” (even though the store, a moment later, gave a “boy’s toy” to a male customer). These “fair counter” tests indicate that stores use discriminatory default and altering rules in selling Happy Meals. Our data constitute strong prima facie evidence of disparate treatment on the basis of sex in the terms and conditions of contracting for a public accommodation.

You can read more about the study and our unsuccessful attempt to challenge the policies in a law suit before the Connecticut Human Rights Commission in the essay in Volume 21 of the WILLIAM & MARY JOURNAL OF WOMEN AND THE LAW and in Antonia’s article that has been shared by more than 25 thousand Facebook users. You can read of McDonald’s new corporate policy with regard to Happy Meal toys here and see a photo of the policy in action here. You can participate in our “Print, Persuade and Post” campaign by clicking on this link and sharing your own Happy Meal experience.

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