No More Boys and Girls: Dismantling the gender gap starts in childhood

21 Aug 2017

In treating boys and girls differently, are we perpetuating gender inequality? Image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Revelatory BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls shows how our micro-behaviours toward children perpetuate an unequal society.

In case you missed it, last week, BBC broadcast the first steps on a journey to a gender-neutral culture for a selected group of seven-year-old kids in Lanesend Primary School on the Isle of Wight.

Each of the children featured in No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? was born when the UK began enforcing the 2010 Equality Act, a landmark piece of legislation bringing together more than 116 others under a single Act enshrining equality for all in society. Part and parcel of that act is legislating against gender discrimination, meaning these kids have grown up in a society made equal to them regardless of their gender – on paper, at least.

Future Human

The reality, however, is that policy alone cannot shift attitudes or change a culture that has been cultivated over generations. These changes do not come swiftly, and the liminal phases between are tedious, frustrating and filled with the hard work of railing against the norm.

When discussing the show at the weekend, one friend remarked how her mother had reluctantly given up work when she became pregnant only because she felt obliged to by her community. This was a few years after the marriage bar preventing women in Ireland from continuing a career after wedlock was dismantled, but the prevailing attitude at home was that women – most certainly mothers – belonged there.

Ireland, like so many other countries the world over, offers equal opportunities to all genders by law, but that is evidently not followed through in practice. We consistently see fewer women in leadership roles (be that business, academia or politics), the gender pay gap persists, and the pipeline problems for women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM, the lauded secure career path of the future) have been well documented across this website for years.

‘We let our girls down from day one. We can’t pretend there is a level playing field for them entering STEM professions after denying them the developmental resources for these areas in infancy’

Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, the presenter of No More Boys and Girls, has a theory as to why – with all the acts and bills and laws and policies and initiatives – gender inequality persists in society. Despite there being no fundamental difference between boys and girls up to the onset of puberty, we treat them differently from infancy.

Take, for example, the prevailing attitude that boys and men outperform girls when it comes to spatial relations. For too long, this has been accepted as a fundamental difference in the sexes, and it has trickled into related areas: men are better at maths, men are better at engineering, men are better at physics, men are better at coding.

We know this can’t be true. There’s nothing that biologically inhibits women from exhibiting capability in all these fields. But still, the idea persists. Why?

A particularly revealing moment in No More Boys and Girls saw babies dressed in ‘gender-swapped’ outfits and left in the care of adults unaware of the change. Unprompted, these adults were more gentle with the babies in feminine clothing, and steered them toward soft, cuddly toys, which, while cute, offered little for the baby’s mental development. The babies in ‘boy clothes’, however, were handled more, plopped into toy cars, and directed towards blocks and shapes to play with.

These kids reach age seven and, chances are, the boys have had more opportunity to engage the part of the brain linked with spatial reasoning more often than the girls, perpetuating the myth of inherent difference between the two when really, it has been engineered that way from their early development.

The sobering thought here is that we let our girls down from day one. We can’t pretend there is a level playing field for them entering STEM professions after denying them the developmental resources for these areas in infancy.

‘The limited binary view of gender we dictate to children is incompatible with the world we have come to know and accept’

Those who railed against the feminisation of Lego and the development of a range specifically tailored to a limited idea of girlhood placed blame at the feet of a corporate monster imposing this idea on children. Lego – a world-leading toymaker now for more than 70 years – will undoubtedly have based this decision on commercial rationale. If the adults with the wallets and the purchasing power insist on buying ‘girl toys’ only for girls, then Lego will, as a commercial entity, follow the money and pander to them.

The fact is that toys, clothes, colours, emotions, professions and more are not either male or female. Moreover, the limited binary view of gender we dictate to children is incompatible with the world we have come to know and accept.

We must also be mindful of the demonisation of the feminine. There’s nothing wrong with liking pastel colours, flowers and glitter. Yet, sometimes, those who want better for girls push this through a rejection of the pink, the sparkly, the cute. While it was good that the kids in Abdelmoneim’s experiment got to meet people in professions that flipped their gender expectations, a more powerful statement could have been made if the male make-up artist showcased his skills at traditional make-up instead of focusing on the ‘boy-friendly’ stage make-up aspect of his work. In showing boys that this career is cool because you can make people look bruised and beaten, we continue to tread the well-worn path that boys can only like violent things and truly ‘girly’ pursuits are frivolous. (I am hoping there’s more to the clip from this week’s episode that showed Abdelmoneim speaking of a wardrobe full of princess dresses – “This all has to go.”)

Unfortunately, while it will take effort for us as a society to allow – unbiased and unfettered – girls to do ‘boy things’, we exhibit far less comfort for things going in the other direction. Think of the connotations of ‘tomboy’ compared to ‘sissy’ (both terms we would do well to dispense with).

As we get older, businesswomen are often advised to behave more like their male counterparts to get ahead. People dispense this advice unironically, neglecting to acknowledge that it rarely, if ever, follows the other way around.

Another common snippet of advice peddled to women in business and breaking into male-dominated STEM careers is: be confident. This reads like a sick joke when we see from Abdelmoneim’s experiment how early in their lives we have successfully chipped away at girls’ confidence.

At just seven years old, kids have already been subject to intense social conditioning. No amount of STEM initiatives will do enough to unpick the fabric of the gender-coded society we have constructed. This will take fatiguing steps involving attention paid to intricate details: the micro-behaviours that shape how we move through society.

What Abdelmoneim finds frustrating in his classroom experiment is somewhat encouraging, though. A few small changes can have a significant impact. Taking baby steps to progress can feel like swimming against the tide, but it can potentially reap greater rewards over the long term than a sweeping directive declaring equality without addressing the myriad of small ways we internalise the opposite.

No More Boys and Girls concludes with episode two this week, moving from the classroom to the home, and I’m sure we have more to learn from Abdelmoneim’s experiment.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic