The dialogue around gender equality has been given a renewed boost of late with actress Emma Watson’s viral speech for the United Nations’ gender equality campaign HeForShe, the ‘fearless girl’ statue confronting the Charging Bull sculpture on Wall Street, New York, and pedestrian traffic lights being changed from walking men to walking women in Melbourne.
Despite the world’s best efforts, it will take 170 years to close the economic gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. Closer to home, the UAE has a vision to become one of the world’s top 25 countries for gender equality by 2021*. Helping children to embrace gender equality from a young age plays a vital role in achieving these aims.
A recent study published in Science pinpointed the exact age that gender stereotyping takes hold. The researchers found that, at age five, both girls and boys attribute intelligence to their own gender to an equal extent. By age six, however, when asked who’s “really, really smart”, both boys and girls were more likely to choose males rather than females. This feeds the notion that boys are naturally smarter, which can ultimately reduce the chances of women pursuing prestigious careers in future. It’s just one example of a shift in thinking that has far-reaching consequences.
“The preschool years are a critical period in which to deal with gender stereotypes,” says Adam Zargar, Executive Director of Executive Director of Coaching & Leading Child Coach (uaecoaching.com).
“Skills, personality choices, limiting decisions and negative emotions are formed in the imprint period of up to seven years old. What children see and hear will play out within their automated mind – as if they’re on autopilot – and the effects of long-term gender bias become most apparent during adolescence.”
While empowering girls and women is vitally important, it addresses just half the issue.
“Gender equality isn’t just about girls, it’s about boys too,” says Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of Fundamentally Children (fundamentallychildren.com) and Good Toy Guide.
“It’s not just about how they see women, but also how they see themselves. Boys are often portrayed as aggressive and can feel pressured to be strong and rough. This often means they aren’t encouraged to express their feelings – not because they don’t have them, but because they don’t want to appear to be weak.”
Imagine for a second that the slate was wiped clean and we’re off to head up a new colony on Mars. We outline some of the changes we could make to raise our children to see beyond gender.
The choices we make
When kids are young, the stories we read, clothing we choose and toys we buy them can have a marked impact on their perceptions of gender. Many retailers, for instance, have recently come under fire for clothing design that missed the mark. Gap was criticised for stereotyping boys as “thinkers” and girls as “social butterflies” with its graphic tees, while Tesco was called out by an eight-year-old girl for separating boys’ and girls’ clothing and Target made headlines thanks to a navy onesie with ‘Future President’ emblazoned across the front (although the company has since stated the item was unisex). The point is, we’re getting more clued up about the messages we send our children.
“There is a bit of a debate over whether the environment a child grows up in creates perception of gender, or whether it is down to biology, but researchers think that it’s a bit of both,” says Dr Amanda. “The most important thing is that children get a choice in what they play with, read, watch, or wear and aren’t forced either into their gender stereotype or to deliberately try to make a statement against stereotypes. If your son wants a pink princess castle, go for it. Equally, if he wants to play with trucks, that’s absolutely fine too.”
Creating a gender-neutral environment can help enforce this, although it’s better to provide children with the confidence to decide for themselves.
“Rather than eliminating all books with stereotypes, we can guide children to recognise stereotypes and increase independent critical thinking about gender and perceptions of gender,” says Adam. “Making a concerted effort to provide positive, empowered stories and images of diverse characters will activate positive self-concepts for children and promote anti-bias attitudes.”
If your kids watch television, make sure they have access to programmes that show genders in more than one light. It can also help to seek out gender positive books such as Sleeping Handsome and The Princess Engineer (News From Nowhere), I Could Be, You Could Be (Karen Owen and Barroux) and the Girls are Not Chicks Coloring Book (from Bookmarks). This will encourage children to see both genders represented in a well-rounded way in fiction.
Walk the talk
As children develop their talents, the ways in which we encourage them can leave a mark. An often-cited piece of research by Doris Yee at the University of Michigan demonstrated that parents and teachers of teenagers assume that when children do well in subjects such as mathematics, boys are labelled as “naturally talented” whereas girls are praised because they’ve “tried hard”. Using language such as this, even if it’s a slip of the tongue, plays a huge part in the way youngsters see themselves. As such, reassessing our choice of wording can make a positive contribution to their development.
“The hidden messages that girls receive about maths, science and technology shape their self-concept, confidence and interest in those subjects,” says Adam. “These messages can come from bias in the media, from family, or teachers who may exhibit lower expectations for females in these subject areas. Skilled teachers encourage cross-gender activities and play. They can also positively reinforce children who are playing with non-stereotyped toys by talking with them and supporting their learning.”
Beyond the classroom, we also have to be mindful of the way we describe certain characteristics and roles in society.
“There are some really simple slip-ups like saying ‘fireman’ instead of ‘firefighter’, ‘policeman’ instead of ‘police officer’ that we can try to change in everyday language,” says Dr Amanda. “For instance, a girl might be described as ‘bossy’ because she wants to be in charge, but a boy would be expected to take charge. When you talk to children, try to think of them as an individual, not just a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’.”
Break free from convention
As children grow older, the quality of their experiences will shape them into adulthood.
“Older children can grasp more complex issues so it can be a good idea to discuss gender equality with them directly,” says Amanda. “It’s also important for parents not to push their own assumptions, for example letting children choose their own extra-curricular activities, instead of signing up their son for football or their daughter for dancing.”
When it comes to helping children reach their full potential in the workplace there is a lot of ground to make up – did you know, for instance, that there are still fewer women leading FTSE firms than men called John?
“Teenagers who haven’t seen female scientists, or male hairdressers, might not even consider this as a potential career path for themselves,” says Dr Amanda.
“There are role models are out there, however, so look around for online videos or television programmes to inspire young people to pursue whatever occupation they want to.”
Perhaps the best thing parents can do is remain open-minded and open to discussion.
“When talking through career choices never place limits – both boys and girls can be engineers or nurses, for instance,” says Adam. “Concentrate discussions on skills, personality qualities instead of job stereotypes. Offer them lessons on famous people who have broken the barriers of gender stereotypes.”
Be more selective about the influences you are exposed to. When choosing a new family film to watch, for instance, consider choosing Hidden Figures, which profiles three brilliant African-American women at Nasa, read up on the growing number of female cockpit crew at Emirates that recently made headlines and show examples of Britain’s Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who takes a supportive role as husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
Make it a way of life
Whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or the breadwinner of the family, you can leverage your position as a positive role model for kids.
“Parents should role play by, for instance, talking to boys about ways to talk to women,” says Adam. “Demonstrate manners and teach respect. Husbands can also model this with their spouse as it is often not the way we say things but the congruence with the body language and physical actions that kids can see and model.”
At home, make sure roles are balances and chores are divided so children see it’s not just one person’s responsibility. “Share household chores and make sure boys and girls know the meaning of money,” says Adam.
“Don’t highlight limits in the workplace but explain they can get what they want with the right work ethic, morals and belief, regardless of their role or gender.”
Getting it right every time isn’t easy and gender equality can feel like a minefield at times. But even the smallest change can make a big difference.
“Whatever age your child is, they will be influenced by the things you say and do,” says Dr Amanda.
“Avoid negative comments about gender equality at home but if you do say something that perhaps you shouldn’t have, use it as a learning opportunity and explain to your child why it might have been wrong. This will go a long way to reinforcing a positive attitude towards gender equality.”
Making Caring Common Project by Harvard Graduate School of Education
Read the research report Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, which suggests that teenage girls face gender bias as a powerful barrier to leadership. It’s a fascinating read, with top tips for parents. mcc.gse.harvard.edu/leaningout.
Educate a Child by Unicef
Great for a global view, this global initiative founded by Shaikha Moza Bint Nasser aims to significantly reduce the numbers of children worldwide who are missing out on their right to education. This is in line with Unicef’s dedication to gender equality and its goal for all women, men, girls and boys to enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections. Find out more at educateachild.org.
Let Toys be Toys
This campaign is 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. lettoysbetoys.org.uk.
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Photos by istock.
Sources: *The Cabinet, UAE: https://www.uaecabinet.ae/en/details/news/mohammed-bin-rashid-assigns-the-uae-gender-balance-council-to-oversee-the-implementation-of-the-gender-inequality-index
This article was originally published in Aquarius magazine