OPINION
05/10/2019 06:00 BST

We Need To Teach Our Children How To Break Down Gender Stereotypes

Just as girls need to see that they can grow up to fight fires, build things, and fight crime, boys need to see that they can grow up to be teachers, full-time parents, or even just occasionally vulnerable.

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In September Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, announced that he has written to every headteacher in London to give his full support to LGBTQ+ inclusive relationships education in schools. This is both hugely to his credit given the tinderbox lit by the No Outsiders protests last spring, and somewhat unsurprising.

Our society seems to have woken up to the impacts of gender and sexuality discrimination in the past few years, with increased coverage of transphobic and homophobic violence, the gender pay gap, and the MeToo movement. It sometimes seems that we are – slowly – dragging our collective consciousness toward a place that has less room for violence and discrimination. Just last week, we saw the demise of the less-than-inclusive Fireman Sam as mascot for Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service (surely the first time the PR choices of a county fire department so gripped the nation).

However, too many of our solutions focus only on ‘tolerance’ or on widening opportunities for women.  If we are to tackle pay disparity, sexual assault, and the raft of other impacts of gender inequality (including those that impact men, like depression, suicide and incarceration), we need to break down the stereotypes that box everyone in – and that includes boys and straight men. We need to shift the mindset of children early, and we need to engage more than just middle-class progressives in this fight.

My own daughter lost interest in Fireman Sam when she started seeing it as a “boys’ show”

We know that language and role models matter. Research has shown that between the ages of three and five (Fireman Sam’s target audience), children develop their sense of what gender means and start sorting things into ‘male and ‘female’ categories based on what they see around them. From ages five to seven, they rigidly cling to the categories they’ve created. They take the words we speak and the images we show them and use them to construct a worldview. My own daughter lost interest in Fireman Sam when she started seeing it as a “boys’ show”.

It makes me sad that she has already mentally deselected herself from some really cool jobs – but I’m just as worried about the impact on my son. Perhaps even more than my daughter is inundated with princesses and fairies, my son is shown men who tend to be physically strong and risk-taking: Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder, Roary the Racing Car. Just like girls are learning that their role is to be pretty, boys are learning that they’re supposed to be unafraid. Even poor Postman Pat – formerly a heroically normal guy – has gotten an upgraded tough-guy song and now flies a helicopter as part of the Special Delivery Service.

Through the social enterprise I’ve co-founded, You Be You, one five-year old boy told me that boys “shouldn’t act sad because they’re supposed to be cool”; another said he would “probably go punch a tree” if he was feeling sad.

Imagine the impact if we all worked together to chip away at the barriers we’ve put around kids of all genders

These messages carry through to adolescence ― the Good Childhood Report by The Children’s Society found that both adolescent girls and boys believe that being tough is more important for boys. It’s not hard to see the connection between this shaming of vulnerability and the mental health crisis in adult men (who are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, less likely to seek counselling, and more likely to commit suicide than women are).

The good news is, it’s in our power to shift children’s perceptions. After just one term of lessons, we saw an impact pupils’ internalisation of stereotypes —for example, a 46% increase in pupils who agreed that it’s okay for boys to like playing house or families and a 38% decrease in pupils who agreed that boys will grow up to have more important jobs than girls will. Imagine the impact if we all – television producers, retailers, educators – worked together to chip away at the barriers we’ve put around kids of all genders.

Girls need to see that they can grow up to fight fires, build things, and fight crime. Equally, boys need to see that they can grow up to be primary school teachers, full-time parents, or even just occasionally vulnerable. And all children need to see that there are a million choices you can make that aren’t dictated by your biological sex. While we’re teaching kids that there are different ways to be a woman and different ways to be a family, let’s not forget to teach them that being a man can look all kinds of ways too.

Janeen Hayat is co-founder of You Be You, a a social enterprise working to break down stereotypes for all children