Do you ever stop to question why as a woman or a man you think what you think or do what you do? Where those ideas and norms come from? The answer is all around us, yet mostly invisible to us. It’s gender norms and stereotypes and they act like an addictive substance. They are incredibly powerful and, so it turns out, harmful, but we don’t even know we are absorbing them until it is far too late. They are seductively small and trivial yet endemic and multiple. To point them out makes us seem pedantic, obsessive. Then when we step back to look at the society we have created, knitting together this complex web of norms and behaviours it’s like some giant woven construct. To unravel it is seemingly impossible.
A new report published today by my charity, the Fawcett Society, reveals that by the age of two, children are aware of the different genders and by age seven, we have developed pretty much fixed ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl. The research evidence clearly shows that as parents we unwittingly replicate and transmit gender norms; in our nurseries and schools we treat boys and girls differently in terms of play, attention and stimulation; and the way we sell products to parents and children is highly gendered with retailers exploiting and segregating the market for no other reason than the fact they think this sells more products. But the research also shows that the wiring in our brains is soft not hard. So with the right interventions at the right point we can challenge attitudes and change lives, but we have to start early.
We know there will be voices who will say this is all harmless stuff, or that it’s just boys being boys and girls being girls. But they are wrong on both counts. The idea that this is nature rather than nurture has been discredited. There isn’t a female or male brain but we do experience, from the day we are born, conditioning of what it means to be female or male and that constrains us all. And the public think so too. Forty five per cent of people say they experienced gender stereotyping as children. Seven in 10 young women affected say it constrained their career choices, half of all women affected say it influenced who did the caring in their families, older women were particularly likely to say this. Forty four per cent of people affected say it harmed their personal relationships – men were as likely as women to say this – and 69% of men aged under 35 say gender stereotypes have a damaging effect on what it means to be a man or a woman. So we are all feeling it and affected by it.
The impact is stark. We see boys struggling to express their emotions, under achieving at school, becoming aggressive and then violent towards girls. We have dads who are prevented from taking paid leave to care for children, or feel unable to leave work early to pick their kids up from school because this isn’t normalised for men in their workplaces. We see teenage girls with low self-esteem and poor body image who then go on to self-harm, with one in five 14-year-old girls affected. In 2019, we have just 8% of STEM apprentices taken by girls because they think those subjects are not for them, or not feminine enough.
These attitudes and behaviours hold us all back and cost our economy dear. It’s time to change it. So in the coming months, Fawcett will be launching a new Commission on Gender Norms and Stereotypes in Early Childhood. We’ll be reviewing the evidence, building a new consensus and examining what works to challenge stereotypes, change attitudes and change lives. If we don’t my fear is we will never achieve equality, never realise the progress we want and expect to see. Some say we are living through a culture war. So for me this is the next shot. It’s game on.