September 29, 2021
By Dr Kathy Weston
I’ve just returned from a very busy, three-day work trip with three colleagues, two of whom are parents of young children. It was clear they had both put a huge amount of time and effort into ensuring that home life could run smoothly in their absence; leaving timetables, stocked fridges and birthday party schedules with parent partners, as well as notes about spelling tests and reminders about P.E kit. In addition to working hard each day, their morning and evenings were bookended with phone chats with their children.
Being away from our children can be emotionally challenging. We have to relinquish the mental responsibility for running a household and divert our focus for a period of time, hoping that friends and family have remembered daily pick-up times and accompanying verbal instructions. It is tough! As for me, my husband was working at home all week, so I had the luxury of being able to focus entirely on my work, knowing that there wasn’t too much complexity in the family schedule, or many reminders required.
Whilst at the conference, an acquaintance called. I told her where I was and what I was doing. Her surprise that I was away for a few days was plain. “Oh gosh, how is your husband managing? How are the kids doing?” “I’m not sure”, I replied. “I’m not there. I’m working. They are with their father, so I’m sure they’re ok!”. It made me wonder how many times my husband has been asked the same question when he has been abroad for work. Rightly or wrongly, I felt judged, defensive and conscious that, for that particular individual, I wasn’t adhering to a particular gender stereotype.
Our children are regularly exposed to gender stereotyping. Many years ago, I was in a store, when my young son wanted to buy a giant pink pencil with a feather and a flamingo on the top. He popped it enthusiastically onto the shop counter, prompting the cashier to exclaim, “Oh, you’ve picked up a girl’s pencil. Would you like to fetch a different one?”. Thankfully, three year olds are pretty good at standing their ground, so the pink pencil made it home. This sort of gender stereotyping is common, insidious and damaging. But where does it all begin?
Perhaps it starts with the dichotomy of colour that now seems to define gender at birth (or even before - at the gender reveal parties that appear all over social media, with their pink and blue cakes, balloons and baby clothes)?
Perhaps it begins when we choose to expose our children to toys or books that denote girls as patient, pretty (and quiet) princesses and boys as adventurous, powerful rescuers? In 2020, the National Literacy Trust’s Annual Literacy Report found that nearly a third of children and young people do not ‘see themselves in what they read’ and that 40% would like more books with characters who are similar to them. For young people who do not describe their gender as boy or girl, this feeling of lack of representation increases to nearly 45%.
It’s unsurprising that children feel this way. A study of the top 100 picture books in 2017 revealed significant gender bias. Lead characters, and characters who speak, were both 50% more likely to be male than female. Where non-human characters were ascribed gender, males were more typically wild, powerful and dangerous dragons, bears or tigers, whilst females were generally vulnerable and smaller birds, cats, or insects. Female adults were more often portrayed as teachers, mothers or carers, than males. Furthermore, only two of the top 100 books featured girls from ethnic minorities in leading roles!
Perhaps gender stereotyping starts when we first talk to our children about the jobs that they might like to do in the future? According to the Fawcett Society, when asked what work they could imagine their children doing when they grow up, seven times as many parents could see their sons (22%) working in the construction industry, compared to their daughters (only 3%). Correspondingly, almost three times as many could see their daughters working in nursing or care sectors (22%), compared to 8% for their sons.
Gender stereotyping can affect aspiration. One study notes that, by the age of 6, gender stereotypes result in girls avoiding subjects that they think require them to be “really, really smart”. It has also been found that stereotyped gender expectations can result in boys developing lower reading skills than girls. A quick look at the significantly lower participation of girls in STEM A level subjects and boys doing an English Literature A level is telling! Alongside its impact on goals and achievements, conforming to, or internalising, gender stereotypes can have an insidious impact on mental health and gender equality and increase the likelihood of depression.
Stereotyping is everywhere and it limits potential. As gender equality charity, Lifting Limits, note, colour schemes, media, clothes and even family compliments can all send messages to young people that there is a right way to be a boy and girl and that there is “little room for expression outside the pink-blue divide”.
When we perpetuate stereotypes, we emphasise narrow expectations and value homogeneity over individuality. Stereotypes drive prejudice, hate and intolerance. They may also contribute to the social conditions that allow violence against women to occur.
The gendered stereotypes that “crying is for girls”, or that boys need to “man up” if they feel sad, often inhibit boys from expressing emotions other than anger. We are all guilty of reaching hasty conclusions based on first impressions and might catch ourselves perpetuating ingrained stereotypes. It takes some mental work to notice unconscious biases that we have and ensure we don’t lazily label those around us.
At home, we can ask friends or family members whether they notice us expressing any gender stereotypes. We should seek feedback and try to address any biases that emerge. Let’s engage our children in identifying gender stereotypes and help them to distinguish these from facts. Consider our own use of language and any terms of endearment which might compound perceived differences between girls and boys. Always challenge insults such as “like a girl” or “man up”, if we hear them. Let’s aim to celebrate people who challenge traditional gender assumptions, actively seek books that portray characters in diverse, positive ways and evaluate our habits around toys, clothes and activities.
It’s something that schools should think about too. A significant proportion of primary and secondary school teachers say that they witness gender stereotyping and discrimination in their school on a daily or weekly basis. This needs to change. How diverse are the historical figures taught in your curriculum? Are school policies on uniform, make-up and jewellery applied to all pupils equally? It’s a good idea to evaluate everyday practices and assumptions. Are girls asked to tidy and boys to carry tables? Since 38% of education practitioners report having negligible or non-existent training on challenging gender stereotypes before starting their role, this is definitely an area for schools to look into.
Happily, I am running a live webinar on this theme, with gender equality experts, Lifting Limits, on 13th October, at 7.30pm. It will be packed full of actionable tips to use at home or school. Book your tickets for this (or any of our other webinars) now at www.tooledupeducation.com by clicking on the blue arrow. Tooled Up subscribers join for free.
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Tooled Up parents should take a look at our tips on challenging gender stereotypes, written in conjunction with Lifting Limits. Keep your eyes on the library for more resources on this subject, coming soon. We will also be hosting a webinar in November on gender identity with co-founder of Schools Inclusion Alliance, Claire Harvey.
As well as our talks on gender, we have three other webinars in the coming weeks. Join us on 5th October to discover optimal tips for parenting tots under 5, 7th October to hear professional hockey player, Holly Cram, discuss how best to nurture young athletes and 11th October to learn more about sports nutrition, with Dan Richardson. Visit www.tooledupeducation.com for full details and to claim your free tickets (please note, tickets are £10 for members of the public).