The Blog

Gender Stereotypes - I Blame the Parents

We bring gender baggage with us at all times, and consciously and subconsciously we cloud our children's world with subtle and not so subtle messages. Many parents who think they are gender unbiased, actually aren't.

In the last blog I explored the similarities in the brains of woman and men, and came to the conclusion that they are both the same. If this is so, then the creation of gender differences and stereotypes must be nurture not nature. Our societal and cultural influences must be remarkably strong, and our children absorb them whilst still in the womb.

A researcher asked a group of parents to describe the activity of their unborn child in the womb. They described the pushing and kicking in gentle and pleasant terms. The parents were then told the sex of their child. The parents of girls continued to describe the activities as tolerable. The parents of boys suddenly started using words like vigorous, active, forceful. The boys became boisterous overnight.

We bring gender baggage with us at all times, and consciously and subconsciously we cloud our children's world with subtle and not so subtle messages. Many parents who think they are gender unbiased, actually aren't. When we look at gender swapping in girls and boys there is a strong bias. Most parents have no objection to their girl being a 'tomboy', wearing shirts and jeans, playing with trucks and cars. However, when it comes to their boy being a 'sissy', wearing dresses and skirts and playing with dolls, quite a few baulk. This is mainly due to societal concepts about the normal behaviour of young boys and girls. Our society has strong opinions about appearance and behaviour and children pick them up very quickly.

Our children want to know what is going on, and necessarily turn into gender detectives from about two years old. Around this time they become aware of the differences in the sexes, they seek to find out which one they are, and, most importantly, what are the norms of behaviour for their sex. As detectives they will form a hypothesis, and test it out against the rest. If a boy has a father who is the primary carer, who does the majority of parenting, the boy will incline towards this kind of behaviour. However, if he also observes that over 90% of the other primary carers are women, he will realise that his father is not 'norm' by name or nature. His instinctive drive will be towards conformity and solidarity with boys, and so his gender identity will seek the societal standards, not his personal ones. In other words, he will still behave and act like a 'typical' boy, even with such a different role model.

Nowadays, there are many ways parents and others are trying to counter-influence our societal standards. Gender-neutral parents are dressing their child in non-gender specific clothing. There's a organisation called 'Pink Stinks' which believes all children - girls and boys - are affected by the 'pinkification' of girlhood. There is a campaign 'Let Toys Be Toys' asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children's interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. Remarkably, in Sweden they've added a gender-neutral personal pronoun 'hen' to the country's vocabulary.

I think these initiatives are necessary, they raise consciousness of issues, but in the long term we really need to have faith in our children being able to make sensible and considered judgements for themselves. If we state our opinions we set a questioning thought process in motion for the children. We shouldn't however, worry too much or over-react to our societal standards, as they are fluid and not fixed.

The 'pinkification' of girls is a very limited recent phenomenon. Not that long ago boys were dressed in pink and girls in blue. The vast majority of girls born this year are not dressed in pink, they are lucky to be dressed at all.

Only when the primary care for children is shared equally between men and women will we really start to influence the gender identities of our children. But every little helps, we are making progress, and our children will not be making the same conclusions as ourselves or our parents.

Neuroscience teaches us that the brain is hard and soft wired. The hard-wired framework is not inflexible and unmoving as was previously thought. The brain is soft-wired by experience, our experiences affect the wiring of our brain. In other words, the brain you were born with is not the brain you have as you grow older. Let's all keep an open mind.