Happy International Women’s Day!

The first thing I read this morning was a great Guardian article on how women’s rights seem to be regressing during the pandemic. This will come as no surprise to most women, who may have been affected disproportionately by any number of things, including home-schooling, choice of which businesses are prioritised for help, ways that earnings are calculated, maternity care conditions, or expectations that they will be the ones to take up caring roles. 

Women are not the only group to have been negatively affected during the pandemic. The Equality Act (2010) lists several protected characteristics, including age, disability, ethnicity… if you look down the list virtually every protected characteristic has been disadvantaged at this time. Whoever is doing Equality Impact Assessment on government policies is doing a shoddy job.

The rough deal women get is a worldwide problem. The World Economic Forum regularly rate countries on relative differences in economic participation and opportunity, academic achievement, political empowerment, health and longevity. Men consistently score higher than women in all cultures studied. What we have inside our pants predicts status and well-being. 

Still, the theme for IWD2021 is #ChooseToChallenge, and in the spirit of seeking out something that we do have the ability to influence, to bring about some positive change, I am choosing to challenge gendered language and stereotypes wherever I can, but particularly in my work with children, young people and families. 

We aren’t born with an idea that our sex has an impact on what we can do, we learn it. Our sense of who we are, what we can expect, and what is expected of us, is shaped by our early experiences and cues from society at large.

Happily, there are things that we can all do to encourage children, from a young age, to de-couple sex and gender from expectation and achievement and to engage in non-gendered play. Here are five ideas:

  1. Mind your language

It’s common to address groups of children with: “hello boys and girls”, but is it necessary? Research shows that using gender to label people increases children’s gender stereotypes. By continually referring to “girls and boys” we signal that sex is important and encourage children to pay attention to their own sex and the expectations associated with it. Similarly when we praise do we have to say “what a good girl”? Making a small difference in our language, changing from saying “the boys in the park” to “the children in the park”, makes sex less important.

2. Challenge gender stereotypes

Gender stereotypes are everywhere. Shops which classify clothes and toys as boys and girls depending on the colour and imagery are an obvious example. Assumptions that girls will be worse at maths and rough and tumble play and better at emotions and getting on well with other people, and that boys should be encouraged to lead and will be less interested in how they look are more insidious. When you spot a gender stereotype, call it out and talk about it. This can help children to notice that these are stereotypes, not universal truths or expectations. Setting an example isn’t enough – we need to actively challenge.

3. Choose play that fosters desirable traits, not promote gender stereotypes

Toys give children a change to play, to experiment and also to practise behaviours and feelings. The toys we encourage boys and girls to play with mean they might become practised in one sort of behaviour over another. Dolls and stuffed animals help children to practise care-giving, no matter what gender. Ball games and building toys help foster hand-eye coordination and spatial skills in either sex. Asking boys about their feelings and friendships and getting Dads and other male role models on board with this encourages emotional literacy and social awareness. Even young children will have seen adverts targeting them as a boy or girl, and will have been encouraged, even accidentally, to prefer gender stereotypical toys. Actively encouraging a different sort of play is important. 

4. Seek out stories which redress the balance

Although there are some great examples of the opposite, many stories that children are presented with are still skewed to reflect gender stereotypes. Actively seek out stories where the main characters buck the trend. Films where a female lead is powerful, books where a male lead is sensitive, stories are really important for helping children to see that there are many ways to be. 

5. What are we praising?

It’s worth looking out for how we’re praising children – are we often reinforcing girls for how they look, for example? The flip side is also interesting to think about: what behaviours are we or others correcting? Are girls being told they’re bossy in a situation where a boy would be praised? Are boys being seen as “over-sensitive” when a girl would be encouraged as quiet and well-behaved? And what are children overhearing you say about your male and female friends and colleagues? 

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