Last week, I wrote a post about the first part of a programme on BBC Two called ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’. Last night the second part was aired. It’s currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
In the first part, presenter and doctor Javid began an experiment to see if removing differences of gender from the lives of children, their opinions and behaviour could be changed.
This continues in the second part. The children are given tangram puzzles to solve, which can help develop spacial awareness, a trait commonly thought of as naturally stronger in males. However, as experts (such as Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive imaging, featured in the programme) have found that the brain changes its structure depending on experiences. This idea could mean that if boys and girls were given equal opportunity to practice developing spacial awareness, there would be no gender difference in this skill. Indeed, results of this experiment show that while the girls initially struggled more than the boys (who more commonly played with LEGO and other toys that can also develop this skill), by the end of two weeks practice, this difference disappeared and abilities were far more equal.
This part of the programme focused heavily on the toys and clothes that children are given, which Javid claims are separated mainly into blue for boys and pink for girls, with stereotyped slogans common for each. Examples given in the programme were t shirts saying ‘Forever Beautiful’ for a girl and ‘Here comes trouble for a boy’. In those slogans are stereotypes that for a girl, the ultimate aspiration is be physically attractive and to remain so, while boys are almost expected to have poor behaviour and be tough and aggressive. None of these messages are positive. My own daughter does like wearing dresses but equally she likes wearing jeans and a t shirt. She has owned more than one t shirt that came from the boys section of a shop, simply because they had designs she liked (both had super heroes on). I’m pretty careful about clothing anyway, especially as a lot of the clothes for girls are, in my opinion, really inappropriate for the age they’re designed for. I could get seriously lost in a tangent on this though so I’ll stop that there!
Javid visited the children’s homes to try and help the parents take away gender differences there too. A girl’s pink dolls and princess toys were bagged up and removed from her room. While they were later replaced with other, more neutral toys, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad for her. I know my daughter is quite attached to some of her toys so this felt a bit harsh. Couldn’t neutral toys and dressing up clothes (this girl had a wardrobe filled to bursting with princess dresses) be offered without taking away toys the child already owns? While I agree that having a variety is good, I don’t see anything wrong with a girl having a princess dress or doll if that’s what she wants. Looking in my own daughter’s room, she does have quite a bit of pink but equally lots of other colours and a real variety of toys – dolls that live in her doll’s house, a jewellery box and lots of cuddly toys but also a big box full of books (none of which are very girly as that just isn’t the kind of story she likes) and an enormous collection of LEGO that is threatening to take over the whole room! She does have some pink, girly stuff but there’s also a Spiderman poster on her wall and an Incredible Hulk figure on her windowsill. It’s her room and looking at it shows the vast variety of her interests.
Replacement toys were given to the children to make up for the ones that had been removed. Marble runs and robot kits for the girls, sewing and craft kits for the boys. All of the children seemed to enjoy them and I did think this was a positive way of challenging the toy stereotyping. I simply think it could have been done without taking the children’s possessions away from them.
Another change made was having the children all use unisex toilets. I wasn’t sure I saw the point of this but when you think about it, toilets at home are unisex so why are they using separate toilets? It was not a change that the children really liked. The girls said that the boys’ lack of hygiene put them off using the bathroom with one girl saying that she tried to hold it in all day – very unhealthy! As it was only one block of toilets that had been made unisex, that meant that a whole class of 30 children had only 3 toilets to use between them. These are issues that could be solved though. The boys’ awareness of hygiene, regardless of any gender experiment, needs to be addressed anyway as it’s a health risk. Also, if these changes were made school-wide and all toilets were unisex, the issue of a lack of toilets to use would be solved too. However, I’m still not convinced by this particular change.
Chores were also looked at. In the UK, women do 60% more of the unpaid work such as household chores and childcare. Initially, it seemed that even when the children’s fathers took on more of the chores, the children still believed that it was more of a female task. An experiment on the beach showed mixed results, with the children splitting themselves off into mixed gender groups for the tasks of preparing the picnic or preparing the fire pit but then the boys lost interest and blamed this on preparing food being a ‘girl’s thing’. In our house, I do pretty much all of the housework and more of the childcare than my husband does. However, he works at a full time job, while I only work part time. I have been careful to explain to my daughter that this, rather than our genders, is the reason for the way we manage these things and that other families do things differently, depending on what works for them. If I were to start working full time, the way we manage work at home would change.
The children were then split into mixed teams to practice playing football, a stereotypically male sport. When asked if they wanted to remain in mixed teams or change into boys vs. girls, most of the children chose to remain in their mixed teams – a positive result. I know my daughter has struggled to be ‘allowed’ to play football with her male friends at school and often feels the boys are being too rough for her to join in.
At the end of the programme, Javid presented the overall results from tests that were done at the beginning of the experiment and repeated at the end.
The difference between boys and girls in self esteem dropped from 8% to 0.2% with many of the girls saying they felt more confident, echoed by their teachers and parents. The girls also started using more positive words such as ‘unique’ and ‘happy’ to describe themselves, rather than ‘pretty’ or ‘ugly’ and were 40% more accurate when predicting their own abilities when at the beginning they had tended to drastically underestimate themselves.
The boys’ pro-social behaviour improved by 10% and they scored higher on the emotional intelligence tests. Their female classmates, their teachers and their parents all commented that the boys had become more caring and empathetic and less aggressive.
These results, to me, are really indicative of the positive changes that come from challenging gender stereotypes.
This school’s headteacher announced that she wants to extend the changes made in the classroom to the entire school. I hope that other parents and educators watching the programme take similar steps. I would love to see my daughter’s school making these changes.
Mr Andre, the teacher whose class took part in the experiment, took on board where he needed to change and has embraced it so whole heartedly that he’s now presenting new gender neutral teaching methods, not just within his own school but also to the Institute of Education. I hope this leads to UK-wide change.
Personally, I think this programme has shown the good that can come from making boys and girls more equal. Of course there are biological differences between the genders. But in most ways, we can be equal and if we start showing our children this now, maybe our future society can be a more equal place for all.
What were your thoughts on this programme?