18/08/2017 11:01 BST | Updated 18/08/2017 11:01 BST

Why Aren't Classrooms Gender Neutral?

There's been a fair bit of debate recently about the innate abilities of men and women. Most publicly, a memo from a male Google employee led to his dismissal, following his assertion that one of the reasons that there are less women in the company is because of biological differences. Another case saw complaints against Clarks for providing shoes for girls that were impractical and discouraged play and an active lifestyle.

It's a recurring theme. Many of my friends with young children maintain that their babies were just 'different' from the outset. Various studies over the years have proven that, at birth, this is not the case (at least in terms of brain structure). Yet the myth persists. You only need to look at any toy catalogue or clothes shop to see the divide - a swathe of blue versus pink. And this isn't just for children. Go to buy your stocking fillers in a few months and you can guarantee that there'll be sport-related gadgets for the men and makeup for the women.

The problem with unpicking these issues is that they're so endemic in society. A programme that aims to do just that is the BBC documentary "No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids go Gender Free?" The programme follows a Year 3 class whose children are challenged to face their gendered assumptions. In a country where gender equality is written into law and we have a female prime minister, some might be keen to brush this off as unnecessary, but the attitudes and beliefs of the children provide for thoughtful viewing.

None of it, for me, was particularly surprising. Initial testing showed that boys had lower emotional intelligence but much higher self confidence, and that girls were the opposite. When it came to assigning job roles and adjectives, they picked nurses and prettiness for the girls, and mechanics and strength for the boys. Of course, as this is a programme out to prove a point, the focus was on those children who offered the most extreme views, but the overall statistics showed these patterns.

Many responses to the Google memo were in agreement with him, citing personal experience of boys preferring or being better at certain tasks. This programme highlights the origins of some of this 'natural' thinking. Babies were dressed in clothing opposite to their gender, and a volunteer came to play with them. Straight away, those toys that were linked to caring or cuddling were offered to the 'girls,' while the more physical toys that developed spatial awareness were offered to the 'boys.'

To pretend that this is innate is to forget the huge influence that adults have on babies from the very moment they are born. As the brain is plastic, it develops certain areas more than others when it used more. Clearly, if certain play behaviours are encouraged at a young age, it will seem that boys and girls are 'better' when they get to school. That's not to say, of course, that there might well be girls who genuinely love pink and want to be nurses, and boys who like tractors and want to be a fireman. The danger is when these broad assumptions are painted over everyone.

One telling scene showed the children taking part in a 'test your strength' machine. Up until puberty, there is no difference in the muscle mass of children of the same size, yet all of the children predicted that the boys would do better. What's more, the boys found it harder to cope with defeat. It's a perfect example of how damaging gender stereotypes can be on both sides. A boy throws a tantrum, unable to express his emotions at not doing well. For the girls, they are limiting themselves before they have even begun. If left unchecked, it's easy to see where the employment futures, confidence levels and even proclivity to violence will end up.

That's not to say the solutions are easy. In the short documentary, a few tactics are trotted out which clearly have an effect. While the presenter notes that 'all schools' could get in a female mechanic and a male makeup artist to chat to the kids, or a more gender diverse reading selection, the reality is a little different. School budgets are tight and there is a syllabus to be covered. Relying on individual teachers isn't going to work, as experiences would be too limited. What I would like to see is a national initiative, built into the fabric of every school day, for all children.

Of course, at the other end of school, there are other, huge challenges. Working practices with relation to flexible hours, job sharing, the stigma of shared parenting, childcare, sexism in the workplace, all of these things are needed so that when these children do leave school, they are entering a world where their understanding of equality is matched by the world they find themselves in. With any luck, we can get on with creating that world for them, while they are discovering the limitless possibilities of themselves.

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