These days there’s not a lot of good news about McDonald’s in the ether. Lately the company has been sued for shady labor practices and picketed for its refusal to pay a living wage—all while telling financially struggling employees to get on public assistance. And then there's the enduring health concerns over its menu. But thanks to some prodding from a determined Connecticut teenager, the corporate behemoth might have done something right. McDonald's says it's ending stereotyping of Happy Meal toys according to gender.
High school junior Antonia Ayres-Brown’s crusade to get McDonald's to stop its stereotypical labeling of toys began six years ago. She was 11 and balked at being asked by one of the restaurant’s servers if she wanted a “boy toy” or a “girl toy.”
As Ayres-Brown recounts over at Slate, she wrote to McDonald’s then CEO and complained to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities that the company was engaging in discriminatory practices. The result? She got the brush-off, says Ayres-Brown, and one store “claimed that if I had just asked for a boy’s toy they would have been happy to oblige.”
In the summer of 2013, Ayres-Brown put the company to the test with some ground research. “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,” she writes. “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.” Her experiment found that even when kids explicitly asked for the toy the restaurant had slated for the opposite sex, the request was refused 42.8 percent of the time.
In October, Ayres-Brown sent the results of her research to the company’s current president, Donald Thompson, and in what can only be called an epic win for humanity, her perseverance has paid off.
At the end of 2013, Patricia Harris, the chief diversity officer for McDonald’s, responded to Ayres-Brown’s most recent written complaint. “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 classification of the toy as a 'boy' toy or a 'girl' toy and without any reference to the customer’s gender,” Harris replied. She also said the chain would be ramping up its training around the issue but admitted that with 14,000 restaurants across the U.S. alone, changing the way servers operate will take time.
As for McDonald's other challenges, maybe the key to getting better food and just labor practices under the Golden Arches is an army of resolute teenagers.