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?