My Thoughts on ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’

As mother to a girl, I’ve always been concerned about her facing certain challenges in life due to her gender. I feel like my concerns are justified when she’s told by her male friends that she can’t play football with them or when even a teacher said that because she’s creative, she could have a career designing handbags. Now, I see nothing wrong with a career in fashion design but I couldn’t imagine the same suggestion being made of a boy who shows creativity. Why should any child be pigeon-holed due to their gender?

I first heard about the BBC Two programme ‘No More Girls and Boys: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ when a clip from the programme popped up on my Facebook feed. The video showed babies being dressed as the opposite gender (i.e boys in dresses) and then placed in a room of toys with a volunteer adult instructed to play with them. The adults clearly segregated the toys based on the gender they believed the child to have, even when the child showed a preference for something else. It sparked my curiosity so I decided to sit down and watch this programme last night.

I will immediately say that I think the title of this programme has been poorly chosen. Okay, it is a series and maybe the first episode didn’t cover this, but thus far there has been no mention of questioning gender identity but rather questioning and challenging stereotypes around the different genders. From looking at the social media response, I think people saw the title and made a snap judgement. I’m well aware that the title might well have been purposefully chosen to generate a heated debate before it was even broadcast. Anyway, onto my thoughts on the actual programme.

The presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim carried out this experiment on a class of Year 3 (age 7-8) children at a UK primary school. Basically the idea was to eliminate anything in their environment that negatively promoted a difference between boys and girls. This included the segregation of the girl’s and boy’s coats to separate cupboards to the classroom bookshelves being clearly organised by gender to the teacher’s use of gendered endearments. By the way, I think the teacher was enthusiastic, seemed to genuinely care about the children and when criticised, he was quite determined to make changes to help his pupils.

What struck me as really sad and quite shocking was how the children spoke about gender. I imagined, perhaps naively, that amongst children there would be more equality and less stereotyping. But boys and girls alike described men as ‘better’ and ‘more important’ than women. One boy believed that men must be more intelligent than women because the President is a man. Now, if he means the President of the United States, that seems almost laughable right now, but I digress.

Other differences shown by tests carried out were a lack of empathy and ability to communicate about emotion in boys and a tendency for girls to underestimate their own abilities. I immediately thought of my own daughter, whose end of term report told me that she believes herself to be far worse at maths and writing than she really is.

Even I have always assumed there are certain differences between men and women. Women are generally more empathetic and better in touch with their emotions, while men are better at spacial awareness. I’ve taken these things for granted because scientific studies of adults confirmed them. But the Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging in the programme said that at if you looked at children’s brains, the differences between girls and boys was barely there at all. She concluded from her own research that differences in adults were the result of training. Men are better at spacial awareness because boys are given more opportunity to train their brains in this skill. I’m not going to listen to one scientist and decide they must be right but I’ve read other studies on the malleability of the brain and how training does alter it’s structure so it does make some sense to me. If we gave girls an equal opportunity to train themselves in spacial awareness, would this particular difference still exist?

The children in the programme were asked specifically about which jobs they considered to be for men or women. It wasn’t really surprising to hear that women should be hairdressers, teachers and nurses, while men should be police officers, fire fighters and soldiers. They were introduced to people in professions not traditionally linked to their gender: a male make up artist, a female mechanic, a male dancer and a female magician. I thought this was a great step towards showing the children that jobs do not need to be segregated by gender. By the end of that session, at least one boy said that he realised that these were ‘everyone jobs’, not just for men or for women. After being quite disheartened at the original comments made, it was great to see this change happening, especially with such ease. It only took a few changes, a few challenges to achieve this.

Being a former literature student, I was especially interested when the discussion turned to books. According to an American study, only 31% of children’s books have a central female character. Although, this was the only statistic given and I did wonder how this was measured. For example, the main character in Harry Potter is obviously a boy but the series is full of strong female characters. It is true that many books are obviously gendered and characters are often stereotypes – boys who are aggressive and badly behaved and girls who are passive and obsessed with their looks. To challenge this, books were introduced to the children in the study that showed strong female characters as heroes.

The final part of the programme challenged the idea that men are physically stronger than women. It was proven to the children, through a fun fairground game, that there’s not really any difference between girls’ and boys’ strength at their age. However, if you took an average man and an average woman, I believe the man would be physically stronger, due to differences in biology that occur during puberty. Surely the message that we need to get across is firstly that a woman can be strong – through training in the same way as a man would – and also that physical strength is not the most important attribute a person can possess. We don’t live in a society where physical strength plays much of a role anymore. There are indeed jobs that require it but I don’t think that’s the majority at all. Even in the jobs that do require it, women are capable of reaching the standards needed, such as to be police officers or to join the army.

Overall, I found the programme interesting and enlightening. I’ve always tried to raise my daughter in such a way that she feels capable of achieving her goals if she works hard at them. She enjoys a huge range of activities and interests, some probably stereotypically feminine but equally many that really aren’t. The most important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that she made the choice.

Surely that’s the most important thing: to make sure children’s choices aren’t limited, as much as is practical. I hope teachers, parents and other children’s caregivers question how they treat girls and boys and make these positive changes to make treatment more equal.

Did you watch the programme? What were your thoughts?

 

 

Let’s Talk About Religion

Another tricky subject to discuss today: religion.

I’ve had a tricky relationship with religion personally. I was raised Christian until about age 9 when my parents seemed to give up on the whole thing (I’m not sure why, they never really spoke to me about it). I was then what I’d probably describe as agnostic through my teens. In early adulthood, I briefly became religious again but then realised that hadn’t been because I really believed in it, it was because I felt isolated and depressed and wanted to belong to something (not good reasons for belonging to a religion, I now admit). These days, I’m an atheist.

From when she attended nursery at a Catholic Primary School, to going on trips to Church with her current school and being friends with children of a range of different religions and beliefs, my daughter has always been full of questions about religion. While I give her the facts where they’re available, with this subject I try to help her reach her own conclusions. We’ve always said that if she wanted to follow a religion, we’d support that but from a pretty young age, she came to the conclusion that she didn’t believe in God. She does enjoy some Bible stories (although she’s found some pretty disturbing). At her school, there are children of different religions and she’s learnt a great deal about them (something I am very much in favour of).

Recently at Easter, as well as at previous Easters, I had to answer some rather difficult questions. She wanted to know how rabbits and chocolate eggs are connected with the story of Jesus. I told her they’re not really. The way Easter is celebrated in UK is very much a mixture of different traditions, stemming from different beliefs. Celebrating new life in Spring is an extremely old concept, much older than Christianity. I also told her that while Christians are celebrating Easter, Jews are celebrating Passover. We didn’t go into much detail with that but I’ve made a little note to maybe learn more about it next year. I have noticed that while she’s learnt a lot about Christianity plus a bit about Islam and Hinduism as school, she’s learnt pretty much nothing at all about Judaism, Buddhism or Sikhism. The concept of atheism hasn’t been mentioned at all and was met with confusion from her classmates when she told them she’s an atheist.

I will make clear now that I like my daughter’s school. We researched it, it was our first choice and we were happy when she got a place. For the most part, she’s been happy there and she’s making excellent progress in her education there. I like that she’s socialising with people of various backgrounds and faiths.

However, I have an issue with how non-faith schools in the UK are required to promote Christianity. I do not agree that ‘daily collective worship’ of a ‘broadly Christian character’ should be a part of the school day. I am uncomfortable with my child, either in school or on trips to churches, being told about Christian beliefs as fact. It is my opinion that education in school should be secular in nature. This isn’t just because I do not share these beliefs. This is because I feel children are not mature enough to think critically and form their own opinions, especially when their teachers (who they should be able to trust to give them facts) are actively promoting religious beliefs. From my experience as a parent, my child has regularly felt isolated and uncomfortable when told to take part in Christian worship in school. I did not ask her if she felt this way, she volunteered the information when I asked her why she was upset on coming home from school on several occasions. Logically, I can only think that she won’t be the only one.

Learning about religion is important. It helps us to understand and respect other people. It gives us a wider perspective of the world and helps us to see things from different points of view.

Celebrating traditional British holidays is also important, as well as enjoyable. As with Easter, people have been celebrating the Winter Solstice for far longer than Christianity has been around and a lot of the celebration of Christmas in UK reflects that. We’re not Christian but we celebrate Christmas, as do many other atheists and non-Christians. It’s a part of our national culture. Nativity plays are a great way of teaching children a key part of Christian belief. It’s also a story that children enjoy. Therefore, I see no problem with it. Certainly in my daughter’s school, they also put on celebrations for other religious holidays, such as Divali and Eid. I see that as a fun way to learn and again, see no problem with it.

If you want your child to have religious worship be a part of their school day, there are plenty of faith schools, covering different denominations of Christianity, as well as Islam and Judaism. You have that option. I, on the other hand, have no option at all to send my child to school where religious worship does not feature. I have friends who have given this as one of their reasons for home schooling their child. I considered it myself, although we instead decided on sending her to school but making sure she can form her own opinions and think critically about what she’s told – an important skill in all aspects of education.

I end this post by making something very clear. I have no issue with other people having religious beliefs. If a parent wishes to have their child follow a religion, that’s their choice and I respect that. However, I should have the choice to send my child to a genuinely non-religious school. While it’s a requirement for UK schools to have collective daily worship, that is not a choice I have.

Ladies, Can I Have a Word?

It’s been just over a week since the 45th President of the United States was inaugurated. He’s not my president (literally, rather than in the powerfully symbolic way many Americans are saying it) but I wasn’t happy about it. I could fill a whole blog post, in fact many blog posts, about how and why I wasn’t happy about it. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to talk about us gals.

The day after the Inauguration, women (and men alongside them) all over the world marched in protest of the views of men like the new President, of the inequality women face, of the way we’re negatively treated. I applaud the marchers. I didn’t take part. I could say that it was because I was working but really, I’m just not the marching type. I’m the writing type (obviously). I applaud women standing together to protest inequality. It’s a beautiful thing.

Women's March On London

It’s an especially beautiful thing in view of something a little uglier I’ve noticed of late. It’s something perhaps we don’t want to discuss. Feminism generally targets those institutions, governments and individual men who oppress women, who discriminate against women and who regularly insult women. Quite right. Someone needs to speak out against them and it’s important that we do. However, we seem to be ignoring a rather large group of people who constantly diminish our worth and our self esteem. Other women.

I’ll give you a few examples of what I’m talking about. Last year in the US, a former Playboy Bunny decided to take a photo of a woman she did not know and share it online, along with a disgusting comment. She claimed later that she meant to only share with a friend, as if that made it ok. I was initially shocked but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I’ve heard countless women make nasty comments about another woman’s appearance.

Here in the UK, when the Conservative party was looking for a new leader, candidate Andrea Leadsom made the claim that being a mother gave her more of a stake in the future of the country, compared to Theresa May, who has no children. Again, I was shocked. Whether or not you’re a mother shouldn’t enter into how qualified you are to do any job. But then, how many of us have faced similar comments? And how many of those comments have come from women? Not all, I suspect, but some.

After the US Presidential election, a woman emailed another woman (who happened to be the Mayor of a town in West Virginia) describing Michelle Obama as an ‘ape in heels’. Ok, this isn’t just a nasty comment about another woman’s appearance, it’s also got a rather racist vibe to it, although both the sender and recipient tried to claim otherwise during the backlash when the email was made public. But still. Michelle Obama, who not only maintains a constant air of dignity, but also campaigns tirelessly for the rights of girls. None of that matters. What counts is how she looks.

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We’re regularly told about the damaging effects of women’s magazines that show images of women that have been perfected (in the opinion of some), first by professional stylists then by editing software. On top of these images are articles about how to keep your boyfriend interested in you, how to lose weight in ways that are usually unhealthy and sometimes border on dangerous and how we can shell out endless amounts of money in an attempt to look like women someone has decided look the correct way. As you can probably tell by now, I hate these magazines. They cause misery. But who makes the decisions on running these articles and including these images? A 2008 article from Forbes tells us that the top magazine editors are all women.

When a man recently directed at me the kind of nasty sexist comment we all face at least occasionally, the many women present didn’t defend me or encourage me to defend myself. Instead they told me that men are just like that and we have to put up with it. Which is pretty much insulting both genders at once. Men are apparently animals who can’t help but be disgusting and sexist and women should just submissively shut up and accept it. Neither of which I see as true. Shamefully, I’m not the confrontational type, so I did shut up. I shouldn’t have. I will try to have the strength not to when this almost inevitably happens again.

Am I saying that the discrimination and oppression of women is actually the fault of other women? No, of course I’m not. I’m saying that it doesn’t help the situation when women tear each other down.

To quote Tina Fey’s character in Mean Girls (an awesome film, by the way), ‘You need to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores’.

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On a more positive note, there are plenty of women out there who are supporting other women. I already mentioned Michelle Obama, who I really admire. I’ve taught my own daughter her now famous quote: ‘When they go low, you go high’. Malala Yousifrazi, who risked her own life in her determination to become educated and to spread a message about the importance of education, especially for girls in countries where it’s too often denied to them.

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Emma Thompson, a supremely talented actress (I dare anyone to watch her performance in Love Actually and not shed a tear) but also a human rights advocate and a highly intelligent and witty woman who behaves exactly as she wishes, seemingly without a care of what anyone might say about it.

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I could go on. But I want to end with this. We can all be one of those women who encourages, supports and defends, rather than criticising and mocking each other on appearance or irrelevant personal choices. We can all be positive role models for each other. Do we all need to be best friends? No. We just need to be a bit kinder and a bit more considerate.

 

Thanks for reading.

A few thoughts on Feminism and International Women’s Day

It was International Women’s Day yesterday and it made me think about labels and oppression and freedom. So I thought I’d share all that with you.

I’ve always been a little unsure of the term ‘Feminist’. I know there was a big movement a couple of years ago of various celebrities and politicians, mostly male, loudly declaring themselves as feminists but the cynic in me rolled her eyes and dismissed it all as a way to garner publicity.

I know lots of women aren’t as fortunate as I am. They live in places where their options are extremely limited, where they don’t have a voice, where their lives are overall fairly miserable. Even in our own country, there are women being oppressed into lives they didn’t choose and have no escape from. We must speak out for them. Of course we must. We must try to provide them with alternatives. But equally, we need to do the same for all of the people oppressed because of their race, religion or sexual orientation, as well as their gender.

I quite like the term Humanist. It’s about equality but for everyone. I can identify with that. If I were to imagine an ideal world, it would be one where everyone can choose who they want to be and be open about it, as long as it’s not actually hurting anyone else. I once said that to someone and they pointed out that, as an example, gay marriage hurts the feelings of some religious people. My response to that is that if you don’t like gay marriage because it goes against your personal beliefs then don’t marry someone of the same sex as you. Crisis averted. I really cannot see how who other people love and marry and spend their lives with affects anyone but themselves. Live within your own rules, by all means, but don’t expect or force anyone else to. But I’m getting off topic a bit here.

International Women’s Day is a good idea, I believe. It’s a good day to highlight the problems facing women around the world and also to celebrate what women have achieved, especially in the face of adversity, thus showing those oppressed women their own potential. I really liked that the Facebook page I Fucking Love Science had a range of posts throughout the day on women in science and technology. I definitely want my daughter to grow up knowing her own potential, that she’s not limited to certain career paths because she happens to have been born with a uterus. Having some good role models is a big part of that. I think it’s worth pointing out that a valid option for her is to be a housewife and stay at home mother. The point is that she has the choice.

So, while I’m not 100% sure about any labels at all, I guess I could call myself a humanist. I want all people to live as who they truly are and live the happiest lives possible. Whether you’re a girl or not.

Have a good day.

 

 

Jurrassic World Racism Controversy: A Few Facts

There seems to be a big issue with the new Jurassic World movie, as many people seem to think it’s being racist by referring to pachycephalosaurus as ‘pachy’. For those who aren’t aware, this sounds the same as a derogatory term for people from Pakistan (not a term I would ever use or defend the use of, I’d like to make very clear). While I haven’t seen the film (although I really, really want to!) I’d like to point out a few things:

1. The dinosaur in question is NOT pakisaurus. A pakisaurus is a completely different dinosaur, specifically a sauropod, so named because it was discovered in Pakistan.

2. Pachycephalosaurus is regularly shortened to ‘pachy’, due it being a very long and somewhat tricky to pronounce name. Including in Jurassic Park 2: Lost World as shown in this clip. Did anyone cry out for that film to be banned? Nope.

3. This film was made in America, where the derogatory term ‘Paki’ is not used or known. The people who made this film would not have made that connection, never mind put it in the film as some kind of subtle message that Pakistani people should be treated as dangerous animals, as seems to be the main point of the argument.

I really hope people pay attention to these facts, calm down and enjoy the movie – it sounds awesome and I can’t wait to watch it!

June 23rd is Alan Turing Day

If you hadn’t already, you’ve probably recently heard of Alan Turing due to the major film about him starring Benedict Cumberbatch. While I really want to watch the film, I’m expecting it to be brilliant and I think it’s great that a film has been made about such an intriguing and important individual, I’m also in disbelief that he isn’t more celebrated or well known already.

Alan Turing, in my opinion, should be known by all as a national hero. He did extremely important work in decoding during the Second World War, heavily contributing to saving lives and actually shortening the war. He was also an early pioneer in computing, developing one of the first modern computers and early computer programmes, without which much of the computer technology we use today simply would not exist. Sadly, he was also the victim of barbaric prejudice because he was gay and was convicted for gross indecency in 1952, a crime in Britain at the time. Rather than face a prison sentence, he opted for ‘treatment’ which involved hormone injections to render him impotent. Posthumously, he was pardoned and received an official apology from the government.

To celebrate this extraordinary man and his vital work, I want to mark his birthday, June 23rd, as Alan Turing Day. It would be an opportunity to teach our children about him, to remember how much we owe to him and to remember how much our country has moved forward since the terrible days of gay people being labelled as criminals.

Alan Turing Day

Please join me in this celebration. Bake a cake, watch one of the films or TV dramas about his life, tell your children about him. Write about it, tweet about it, mention it on Facebook. Spread the word and help the world to recognise this amazing individual as the hero that he is.

Thank you for reading.

9,125 days

I recently became 25 years old. I know that really we’re growing a day older every single day and there’s very little difference between being 24 and 25 but it seems like a good time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future.

A lot can happen in 25 years.

I’ve lived in thirteen different places but only called a few home.

I’ve been married for a fifth of my life. This is one of those weird things where it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long but also feels so permanent that it feels strange that at one point it hadn’t happened yet. I hope that makes sense! I love being married. It’s genuinely brilliant.

I’ve created a whole other person (with help, of course!) This still feels strange at times. When she was born, I was in complete awe that this little living creature was grown in my belly. Now that she’s got her own personality and she’ll be starting school soon, it feels even stranger. I didn’t just grow a baby, I grew a person who will have her own life. That is so awesome.

I’ve had many different friends, most of whom I don’t even know anymore. Growing distant from friends used to feel really sad but, to be honest, it doesn’t as much anymore. I guess it helps that I actually live with my best friend! I also think it might be down to realising that everyone’s lives are always changing so friendships are bound to change too. Friendships don’t mean less just because they’re often transitory. I’ll always look back and remember the good friends I’ve had and feel glad to have known them when I did.

I haven’t traveled as much as perhaps I had thought I would when I was younger and I would like to visit more places – I’ve never actually left Europe! However, I do live hundreds of miles from where I was born and grew up so maybe that sort of makes up for it.

I’m not far off from having a university degree, just two years away, as long as it goes according to plan. There were times when I thought this would have happened a lot sooner than it has but there have also been times when I thought it would never happen at all. I’m really grateful that the Open University exists so I’ve had the opportunity to try and achieve this.

I guess the conclusion of my thoughts on turning 25 is that I’m happy where I am now and I’ve got lots of good things to look forward to in my future.