Can our children be freed from gender stereotypes, ask Dr Javid Abdelmoneim in his BBC documentary this week. Yes and, as Dr Javid himself explains, “the frustrating thing is just how easy it is.”
The two-parter follows a class of seven-year-olds as they first reveal the extraordinarily strong gender assumptions they already hold before trying to unpick them. “Boys are cleverer than girls – they get to be Presidents more easily,” says one little girl at the start of the experiment. I want to weep and can only hope that, at least, she is thinking of Obama. “Girls don’t do anything big, like be astronauts,” asserts Maisy, who later bursts into tears after getting the top score on the physical strength test.
Almost all the girls start off believing that boys are stronger, braver and cleverer. They underestimate their physical and academic abilities, are less confident and demonstrate a hyper-awareness of their looks. The boys seem pretty convinced of their superiority too. “Strong” is seen as a “boy word” and one little chap feels certain that men are “more successful” than women. In tests they consistently over-estimate their abilities but find it very hard to handle their feelings when they don’t live up to their own expectations. Boys are struck dumb when asked to describe emotions, until it gets to anger when they totally let rip. “Do you cry?” Dr J ask Riley, a particularly bullish little chap. “No, but I do get angry,” Riley explains. “And then I break my bed or my lego.”
And there they are, the proto-adults we all know so well. The women ready to underachieve and hate their bodies, the men pushing themselves forwards while the pressure builds inside. It feels like we haven’t made a smidgeon of progress on equality in the next generation.
I’m watching No More Boys and Girls with my own seven-year-old, Sofya. I’ve consciously tried to avoid gender stereotyping her and her nearly four-year-old brother with a moderate degree of success. The princess phase definitely happened, but it passed and trousers were in once again. We shop for clothes, choose room colours and toys carefully and I never get tired of my daughter repeating our catchphrase “everything is for everyone” when a friend (or their parent) suggests that boys can’t play with dolls.
But the programme exposes the weak links in my supposedly well-planned chain. Even Mr Andre, the forward-thinking class teacher, has his gender-fails revealed. Calling the girls “love” and the boys “mate”, having a separate coat cupboard for each gender and asking the louder, more confident boys more questions than the girls, Mr Andre has to work hard to change his own behaviour. I ask Sofya if we sometimes slip up like that at home and she points out that I call her brother “buddy” but never use that term for her. My son definitely plays with more lego than my daughter ever has – something which we learn will train his otherwise identical brain to be better at spacial awareness tasks than his sister. Experts believe this explains men’s greater abilities in this area, contributing to only 13 per cent of science, technology, engineering and maths jobs going to women.
However hard we try at home the world outside is waiting for them. The “tsunami of pink and blue” that Javid finds in the high street stores is hard to avoid. And then there’s school – the focus of the BBC experiment and a place our children spend a huge chunk of their lives. My daughter’s old school printed all dance club forms on pink paper and football on blue until we pointed out that it might be contributing to the gendered take-up of the activities. At her lovely new school Sofya tells me they are usually pitted boys v girls in sports and that the boys take ownership of the best playground for football leaving the girls short on space at the edge. Much, much worse is the naming of all next year’s classes after scientists who will be the focus of the school’s topics. And yes, you’ve guessed it they are all men – and mainly dead white guys at that.
Even though Sofya says she knows that “women can be successful as well and do hard jobs too” I worry about a year with a science focus and zero female role models. She thinks the kids will learn that “boys are cooler”, especially as friends of hers already believe “that girls aren’t allowed to like superheroes or blue things.”
There’s something dark at work when seven-year-olds already understand that being pretty is an aspiration and have learned to dress in a gendered way which is modified to hide shameful parts of their body
Though Javid and his team got the kids at Lanesend Primary to try a unisex bathroom, I was surprised that they didn’t tackle the obvious issue of gendered uniforms. The vast majority of girls at the school – and my daughter’s – wear dresses and skirts. Sofya is slowly coming round, of her own accord, to wearing trousers and shorts like the boys. She likes the freedom they give her to run, cartwheel and climb and, happily, her school doesn’t insist on a gendered clothing divide. But (and this comes as a shock to me) some primaries still do. And there’s something else, that makes me really, really uncomfortable. Lots of the girls are asking to wear (or being told by schools to wear) shorts under their skirts so that they don’t show their underwear whilst playing.
There’s something dark at work when seven-year-olds already understand that being pretty is an aspiration and have learned to dress in a gendered way which is modified to hide shameful parts of their body. The message is pretty clear when – in the case of a friend’s school – the girls are banned from wearing trousers but are told by staff to cover themselves with shorts underneath if they want to play freely like the boys.
In a week where Clarks have withdrawn the forehead-smackingly named “dolly babe” shoes for girls, but the boys equivalent (“leader”, of course) are still on sale, Javid’s documentary is important and well-timed. The experiment seems to have a profoundly positive effect on both genders, who choose to stay in mixed-sex teams, the girls developing in confidence and loudness, the boys able to express their feelings and empathise more. I can only hope that other schools – including my daughters – watch and learn.
What does Sofya think? “I feel worried about it now I’ve watched the programme because there might be girls who want to be mechanics but then they aren’t allowed. I think that we need to stop Mummy’s and Daddy’s from telling the children that barbies and pink are for girls and lego and blue is for boys. The shops need to stop putting pink and blue on everything. There’s green, purple, red, and orange too! Next term I’m going to join football club and I’ve asked Mummy to get me some lego stuff and a tangram puzzle with the money she’s giving me for helping with this article.”