Gender Bender: How to Break Free from Gender Stereotypes
By Sanober Bukhari
I am a strong advocate for gender equality. It bothers me immensely when I see and overhear gender stereotypes integrated so casually into conversation. Whether it is talk between a couple of North American moms at the local organically sourced coffee shop or in the drawing room of a sprawling mansion with a group of South Asian women chattering over high tea. Despite one’s education and progressive thinking, the majority of us are unable to erase gender bias from our internal programming.
I am not going to get into the “why” and “how” of the origins of such stereotypes because we have all experienced it, regardless of ethnicity and culture. I will however discuss what we can do about it to ensure our children are armed with knowledge, perspective and an open mind to make equality a reality. Guess who the first change starts from?
A child’s earliest exposure to what it means to be male or female comes from parents (Lauer & Lauer, 1994; Santrock, 1994; Kaplan, 1991). Children internalize these messages with awareness of gender role differences from two years old (Weinraub et al., 1984). This is further reinforced through school and in particular the media. As children develop, these stereotypes become firmly entrenched beliefs and thus, are a part of the child’s self-concept (Susan D Witt, 1997).
Now if you are like me, your reaction to this last bit would have been “What? I certainly did not encourage my daughter to become a girly-girl”. But when I think about it of course my daughter has been receiving messages of how girls are ‘supposed’ to be since she was born. One study indicates that parents have differential expectations of sons and daughters as early as 24 hours after birth (Rubin, Provenzano, & Luria, 1974). And if you happen to be South Asian, cue dramatic music as a young mother looks at her newborn daughter, her face wrought with emotion “Aaj humari beti, kal kisi aur ki hogi” (Today she is our daughter, tomorrow she will belong to somebody else). Instinctually desi parents stop expecting much except “a suitable boy” for their daughter and ambition and success for their son.
I would argue that I probably received the same messages growing up and still have a healthy perspective on gender roles. In fact it took me a while to get over being anti-pink because even that extreme was unfair and hindered the equality movement. Since I have always been conscious of this stereotype I tried to balance bias cues as much as I could. Despite this my 3-year-old daughter is currently going through a princess phase. And it is alright, because she enjoys it. I know I am doing something right when her teacher tells me that during their outdoor play my daughter, when she feels like it, will leave her group of “let’s play house” friends to run and play soccer with the boys.
Having my internal feminist appeased knowing my “girl” understands there are no limits to her doing “boy” things it got me thinking about how society reacts when our boys do “girl” things. In my experience there was rarely a stigma if you were a tomboy. In fact it made you seem ‘cooler’ to the boys and brought secret pride in fathers. However, if a boy started to display softer, feminine traits attributed to the fairer sex, this was cause for concern; ranging from he’ll “turn gay” or be “weak in character”.
Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations for the HeForShe campaign said it perfectly “If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals.”
I don’t have a son but I have observed family and friends with sons struggle with this society created dilemma. I feel just as strongly for the stigma-free right for boys to be able to show vulnerability, wear pink and play with unicorns as much as girls should be able to take charge, display strength and play with automotive toys without being labelled. We should be able to interchange these traits without it defining us. I will always remember this particular moment when my friend and I were given gifts for her son and my daughter. My daughter’s gift bag was pink; the one for my friend’s son was yellow. We both looked at each other and naturally exchanged the bags. Her son loves pink and my daughter adores yellow. It wasn’t about gender. We both knew what our kids would enjoy.
Our children may have been exposed to gender stereotypes already but that doesn’t mean it has become their belief. Parents who adopt an egalitarian attitude regarding gender roles are more likely to foster this attitude in their children. Individuals with an androgynous or genderless perspective have been found to have higher self-esteem (Lundy & Rosenberg, 1987; Shaw, 1983; Heilbrun, 1981) and higher levels of identity achievement (Orlofsky, 1977).
Bending the Gender “Rules”
- Families with one or both parents with an androgynous attitude have scored higher in parental warmth and support. This could mean having Mom change the light bulb or use the power tools and Dad wash the dishes and bake the cookies or vice versa without it being an issue.
- For those of us who are home with the kids, they will assume that all moms stay at home and all dads go to work. Redefine and explain what ‘work’ means and it is not more or less important if you go to an office or are at home. I.e. Dads can stay at home too. Talk about the different jobs that exist and that your child has access to whatever he or she wants to be.
- Keep a check on your own biases that can inadvertently come out e.g. only praising your daughter on appearance and your son on strength; letting your son be aggressive but expecting your daughter to be timid; showing more sympathy if your daughter cries and expecting your son to control his tears.
- Don’t assign gender to toys or colour. Suggest a variety of toys to your children letting them choose based on preference and not on what is thought of as a ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ specific toy. Probe your child and get them to think out loud why it can be a toy for anyone. The same applies for colours. Even for the most progressive thinking father watching his son play with dolls might be difficult, but it is important to know it does not have any negative connotation just pure joy. Fight the bias and remember the more you emphasize on it the more adverse the effects will be.
- Encourage play dates with both boys and girls. This will ensure exposure to varied activities and interests, from creative play to building and athletics while learning how to play with each other.
- Break generalizations down to specifics. If you overhear your son yelling at someone that they “throw like a girl” or you notice your bug-loving daughter squeal along with the girls who don’t like bugs, get them to talk about what specifically made them react that way.
- Lastly, nurture a positive environment of learning and encouragement in your household, where your child feels safe to express his/her true personality, without fear or consequence of being different. If you let your child thrive, so will you.
Source: Parental Influence on Children’s Socialization to Gender Roles, UN Women, HeForShe
How do you bend the gender “rules” in your house? Help us carry on the gender bias conversation further!
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What a great article. The gender conversation is so critical in our families. I am South Asian and have two wonderful girls. It is our responsibility to make the world a better place for our kids.