It has taken me a really long time to write this post. In fact, I’ve got various drafts in different places dating from 2016, and that was just when I started to get my thoughts down on paper. Gender stereotyping is something I have become increasingly aware of, and concerned about, since becoming a parent. It’s not a straightforward issue, and maybe this is why it’s taken me so long to bring all my thoughts together to write this post.
There have always been gender stereotypes and I’m sure that to some extent there always will be. Some of these are based on fact – for example, the idea that boys are stronger. Obviously we know that, as a general rule, men tend to have a larger build and greater muscle mass. For children, however, this isn’t the case, and girls and boys of a similar size are pretty evenly matched in terms of strength until they hit puberty.
Other stereotypes – for example, a child’s play preferences – I suppose probably stem from history and parents assuming traditional gender roles. For example, you might presume that a girl would enjoy playing with dolls, or using a ‘home corner’ play area because traditionally women have been the ones to stay at home and look after the children. Similarly, a boy might be given toys which more closely represent more traditional male roles – perhaps to do with construction, engineering, or science.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that there aren’t differences between boys and girls. You might have a little boy or girl who actually really enjoys those kinds of play – T certainly loves playing with her dolls and tea set (although she also plays with her cars and garage most days at the moment, and gets really excited about doing scientific experiments).
What I am saying is this: children need to be given the freedom to reach their full potential, regardless of their gender. And exposing them to attitudes which encourage these stereotypes, or treating them in a particular way based solely on their gender, is harmful.
I’m aware that might seem a strong word to use. But I don’t think I’m overstating the case.
Media and Marketing
Thankfully, the debate around gender stereotyping has received an increasing amount of media attention in recent years, and at long last some companies seems to be starting to take a bit of notice. However, we still have a long way to go.
Take a trip to your local supermarket, for example. Now, I hope not, but you may well find an aisle labelled ‘boys toys’ or ‘girls toys’. Go back a year or two and you almost certainly would have. What things will you typically find amongst the boys toys? Lego? Drill sets? Toy cars? And how about the girls? Most likely, tea sets, dolls and craft kits – pink, of course. I’m not saying the children won’t enjoy those things. My problem is this: the children are being told, through specific, gender-based marketing, what they should and shouldn’t play with. And my issue with that is that particular toys teach particular skills. They aren’t ‘just toys’ and it’s not ‘just playing’. Playing is how they learn. When children play, they are learning to hypothesise, investigate, experiment, communicate, negotiate, create, problem solve, explore their feelings, grow in confidence, and develop their concentration.
In general, toys marketed towards boys tend to develop spatial skills, problem solving, and an active lifestyle, whereas ‘girls’ toys tend to develop social and communication skills, as well as fine motor control. And actually, I am keen that both of my children – I have one of each – become competent in all those skills.
And the marketing doesn’t stop at toys. I’ve just had a quick scan through some of the children’s clothes on the websites of a few shops that I tend to buy clothes from. Many of them have slogans. Let me give you a few examples of the slogans that I found:
- Style icon
- Shine, smile, sparkle
- Just have fun
- Born to sparkle
- Lead the way
A stark comparison, no? I think the tide is slowly turning – I was relieved to see a t-shirt from one supermarket which proclaimed ‘Girls can change the world’ and to see that another high street store had a line for both boys and girls which displayed the words ‘We are the future’.
However, the fact remains that the boy’s slogans tended to revolve around strength and leadership, whereas the girl’s were so superficial, often focussing on looks.
Similarly, when you look at shoes for children, so often I find that the girls shoes are overwhelmingly pink, sparkly, or their design is limited to flowers and butterflies. Worse than this, the shoes often are less sturdy that the boys shoes. It’s as though the designers have assumed the girls will be less active and that therefore their shoes don’t need to be so hardwearing.
I’ve even seen books which, although not necessarily explicitly marketed ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ will make it clear by their content and design – a blue book with vehicles of all kinds, pirates and aliens; and next to it, a pink one filled with butterflies, princesses and cupcakes. I can’t speak for every little girl or boy, but I know there are definitely things in both books that T would have enjoyed.
So what does this mean for our children – and by extension, our society?
I don’t know if you saw any of the BBC documentary, No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? which was aired last year. I found it really eye-opening. In the documentary, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim was investigating whether by removing some of the social stereotypes placed on girls and boys, their attitudes and abilities could be changed. I’m not going to summarise the entire programme here, but I will share some of the key things I picked up from it.
Early on in the programme, the children – and these were 7-8 year olds – were asked to describe men and women. These were some of their comments:
“I would describe a girl as pretty, lipstick, dresses, love hearts.”“I think men are more successful because they can have more harder jobs and they can earn more.”“I think men are better at being in charge.”
Don’t you find these shocking? That such young children had these ideas: that men are more intelligent and more suitable leaders; and that how a woman looks is really significant? These ideas just seem to creep in as if from nowhere. T went through a phase (aged 3!) of getting really upset if she didn’t think she looked ‘pretty’ and worrying about what others would say. Thank goodness she seems to have come out of that, but we found it a really difficult to know how to manage because although we wanted to reassure her that she is beautiful inside and out, we didn’t want to reinforce the idea that her looks have any bearing on her character!
The documentary found that the girls significantly underestimated their own intelligence, and had lower self-esteem and self-confidence. The boys, on the other hand, found it very difficult to express any of their emotions, other than anger.
The children expressed clear opinions about certain jobs being appropriate for a specific gender, and when asked to draw pictures of various jobs (mechanic, magician, makeup artist, and dancer), they overwhelmingly identified the mechanic and magician as male and the dancer and makeup artist as female. Now say one of those boys really loved to dance – yet he sees all the children in his class saying, ‘dancing is for girls’ – how long is he going to be willing to keep at it?
I found it so sad that at such a young age, the children had such set ideas about each gender. These views, left unchallenged, could seriously impact the children’s future. I mean, isn’t it just human nature to do things that we feel we are good at, and stay within our comfort zone? Not all the time, of course, but certainly a lot of it. And therefore, it’s easy to see a correlation between these girls underestimating how clever they are and the fact that less than 30% of CEO’s, Senior Officials, Managers and Directors are women (Office for National Statistics, 2017). Additionally, we can see the link between boys who find it difficult to express their emotions and the fact that in 2016, men accounted for around 75% of suicides in the UK.
What can we do?
There are a few things we can do to address these issues. Firstly, let’s start at home.
Along with most parents, one of my greatest desires is that we do the absolute best for our children in order to enable them to grow up to be well-rounded, happy adults. I’m keen that we provide them with a broad range of opportunities to enable them to discover their interests; that we nurture these interests as they grow; and that as far as possible we protect them from outside influences which don’t hold with these values.
It’s a big job which can sometimes feel overwhelming, and I don’t claim, by any stretch of the imagination, to have this all figured out! But here are some simple ways that we’ve tried to do this so far…
T’s main source of media intake is from television. We are careful about what she watches, and currently, we only let her watch CBeebies (as well as the occasional film of course) There are a few reasons for this – firstly, I think the majority of programmes on CBeebies are pretty high quality and a lot of them have some kind of educational value. Additionally, there are some great programmes such as ‘Do You Know’ and ‘Nina and the Neurons’ which see female presenters in engineering and scientific roles – great role models! Another of the brilliant things about the BBC as a whole is, of course, the lack of advertising. If we’ve ever flicked on to one of the other children’s channels I’ve been struck by not only the vast amount of advertising in between each programme but how often these seem to be so strongly marketed to one particular gender.
Talk About It
When I saw No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?, T actually came in to the room as I was watching the final part. She caught the part where the children were being challenged on jobs and gender roles. I was a little hesitant and wondered if I should turn it off. What if she heard the kids saying ‘girls can’t be mechanics’ and thought they were right? But I’m glad I left it on. Just a few minutes later, she piped up:
“Mama, that boy said only girls can be dancers! And he isn’t right, is he? Because ANYONE can dance!”
And it actually sparked some really good conversation about what different people think and whether we have to agree with them. Every now and then we bring up the topic again with her, and so far, she seems to be steering clear of traditional stereotypes.
In fact, as I’ve been writing this, she brought up the topic again. This time, she asked me if boys could be ballet dancers.
“What do you think?” I replied.
“No – because you have to wear a dress.”
Of course, we then chatted about how boys can do ballet and how they usually wear leotards and tights but no tutu, and I showed her some pictures of male dancers. Good ol’ Google, eh?! She was seriously impressed with some of their moves!
We’ve been quite careful that T has received a really wide range of toys which develop lots of different skills – so that as well as developing social skills, imagination and creativity, she has also received toys which develop her problem solving, engineering and scientific skills. One thing that has really helped with this is making a gift list for her.
Our family is, by and large, a ‘list’ family. Most of us create gift lists and while we don’t always buy from the list, I really like knowing that I’m getting them something they’d really like if I’m lacking any original ideas! We’ve always created a list of gift ideas for T, and now one for A as well. As they get older they’ll have a bit more input into what goes on to the list – but when I tried to get T involved at Christmas the only thing she could think of that she wanted was more books!
I fully intend that as A grows, we will also put things on his list which develop the same broad range of skills. I can already see that we are probably going to be putting a doll on his birthday list as he smiles his biggest smile when T lends him hers (I’m not quite convinced he’s realised yet that the other baby isn’t real)!
We have tended to avoid toys that we we feel could be unhelpful, which has included things such as play make-up/jewellery, hairdressing toys, or lots of ‘princess’ dressing up stuff. As well as not wanting her toys to be too focused on looks, we also feel these kind of items don’t have much play value and would end up sitting unused. She does have some princess dressing up things, which she really enjoys playing with from time to time, but they are in her dressing up box alongside animal masks, different hats (e.g. police/astronaut/pirate), and props like glasses and crowns.
This is a hard one, because actually I’ve never considered myself to be especially good at understanding emotions. Learning to help T understand, express and manage her feelings is certainly one of the more challenging facets of parenting for me.
Along with – well, pretty much EVERY other aspect of parenting – we are learning as we go. I guess the key will be that we have a similar approach for dealing with emotions for both T and A. Maybe we will have to work harder to help him vocalise and deal with his feelings? I’m not sure. What we won’t do is teach him that he has to handle his emotions in a certain way just because he is a boy. It’s so important that children – regardless of gender – are taught not only HOW to understand and express their emotions, but that it is good to do so.
Ok, so those are a few ways we can try and address this at home, and for many of us, that may be all we do. However, if you’re feeling like you want to do more…
When you see that a particular toy or clothing manufacturer has marketed their products specifically towards girls or boys, and it seems unhelpful, challenge them on it. Tweet them, drop them an email, ask them why they thought it was necessary. They may not respond, but the more of us that show we care about the issue, the more they’ll have to take notice.
Let Toys Be Toys
Let Toys Be Toys is a campaign which has been running for several years now and is “asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.” They have loads more information about this topic on their website, and they also have a petition you can sign, and opportunities for volunteering if you’re really keen!
I’m aware that this has been a really long post, so thanks if you’ve made it all the way here! Do go and check out some of my other posts – most of them are much more light-hearted!
How do you manage gender stereotypes with your children?