Are you gender-biased? You may feel you treat your children equally, regardless of gender, and you may provide your child with toys and games according to their interests, regardless of their marketed color.
Parents are up against it when it comes to gender neutrality. Have you seen children’s clothing and toy aisles recently? It can be very difficult to offer your child a choice when they are marketed something very different.
It wasn’t always this way. These Lego ads from a campaign in 1980-82 show the toy exactly as it is: fun for everyone, regardless of gender. And take note of the primary-colored blocks NOT the prescribed baby blue or candy pink selections with limited activities both boys and girls have to choose from. So what has changed?
Have you ever considered parenting as a very commercially lucrative industry? Perhaps the need to get parents to buy more product drove the change to “diversify” the toy your children plays with. That way, it means that parents buy their girls one set of the product and their boys another set instead of them both playing with the same set. Double the profit…
Also, more and more parents are hungry for validation, for the “proof” they are parenting correctly. Enter research and experts. We all know girls and boys have fundamental physical, mental, and emotional developmental differences. British Author and Health professional Dr Miriam Stoppard explains these very well in terms of catering to the needs these differences can make, in her book “Complete Baby and Childcare” and this article highlights the main differences very clearly.
These developmental differences show a preference for certain things at certain times. What happens alongside natural development is cultural influence. Children’s toys, clothing, and equipment manufacturers have taken these preferences and made them fixed. Your children don’t get a choice anymore, they can have no preference at all because there are no options but the pink t-shirt with the glittery fairy or play with the blue train which goes fast and makes a lot of noise. When choice becomes no choice, preference becomes “trait” and truth. Choice and preference become even more difficult to discern when they are marketed as “girl’s toys” or “boys clothes” and are displayed in separate aisles.
I can understand gender-specific manufacturing and marketing when there is a true developmental or physical difference, such as different boy/girl nappies as wee comes out and accumulates in different places. I can also understand the intention behind “books for boys” as the uptake for boys reading from ages 8+ drops away, but is that not more of a cultural construct rather than a gender one? And what choice of topics do boys get to read about?
Gender bias can be a parenting minefield. Have you thought about the words you use and the actions you take? In the home do you and your partner share tasks and chores irrelevant of gender? Is this difference explained to your children in terms of preference and choice, relating to skill and interest or in terms of gender stereotypes and cultural constructs? Is the same asked of your children? And what about your preferences for their hobbies and interests? Have a think about how you might have fixed their preferences, much like toy companies do, by not giving choice.
In parenting my daughter, I have researched and gravitated to companies such as Goldieblox and A Mighty Girl who set to re-right the massive imbalance in marketing and manufacturing towards girls. Are these not just as bad, but in the other direction? Forcing a different type of preference or “no choice” onto girls? No, I don’t believe so. I believe Goldieblox and A Mighty Girl are once again allowing preference and are opening up choice to our girls. Do I wish they didn’t have to? Of course. I wish we could go back to the 1980s when there was a mass of children’s products as a whole, for all to enjoy, rather than gender-divided products which exclude and restrict.
And it is not just limited to products. I have always felt there are very limited positive gender-based role models for my daughter on TV. How many popular mainstream children’s’ TV programmes can you name which have a girl as the lead character – especially ones where the lead is making strong decisions, being adventurous, daring, and leading the way! There is no Fireman Sally, no Tania the Tank Engine, and no Jane and the Neverland Pirates. Dora the Explorer = 1.
We are a sporting family and enjoy watching sports on TV but where are the women’s competitions? I am forever bemoaning this to my husband, in front of our daughter, and searching out coverage that gives her a more balanced idea of what she is capable of and what women do – from all walks of life. So it was with delight (although disappointed it has occurred at all) to see the most recent twitter campaign #Girlswithtoys after this gender gaffe by a male astronomer:
No matter what I tell my daughter, influence outside of my opinion is very powerful and I look hard to find strong, dynamic, creative female role models in her community and elsewhere. I am very conscious of encouraging all her interests and interestingly she has gravitated towards a more gender-neutral sport of horse riding, a sport where both men and women compete alongside each other on equal footing. A point to the feminist! Shockingly though, when I said I was going to the cafe to sit and read a paper, she said “but girls don’t read newspapers mummy.” Perhaps my work here is not yet done.
Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema