Girls like dolls and boys like trucks. It’s an immutable fact of nature – or is it?
In an illuminating experiment carried out on new SBS documentary Is Australia Sexist? , adult volunteers are asked to play one-on-one with a 15-month-old baby, who, unbeknownst to them, is dressed in clothes associated with the opposite gender. Isla, a chubby baby with dark curls, dons a blue top to become Ian; Samuel, in pink, becomes Samantha; Charlie is Charlotte, and Maisie is Max.
Host Yumi Stynes and Dr Marilyn Metta from Curtin University review the adult participants’ selection of toys. Tellingly, their choices overwhelmingly adhere to traditional gender stereotypes. The first volunteer, a man in his thirties, hands baby ‘Ian’ a fire engine, while the second volunteer chooses a tea set for little ‘Samantha’.
We see the third volunteer, a woman, choose a series of dolls to play with ‘Charlotte’. Later, Stynes asks her what Charlotte’s favourite toys were. “The hairbrush and handbag – girly things,” she replies. “Was she a girly girl?” Stynes asks. The woman seems about to say yes when she reflects that maybe she wanted to Charlotte to be “girly” – “because I am,” she explains.
At that moment, Stynes reveals that Charlotte is really Charlie, a boy. The woman’s surprise is evident. “You’re kidding!” she exclaims, her eyes wide.
The fourth volunteer is similarly floored when he learns that Max, a curly-haired bub in overalls, is, in fact, Maisie. His first choice for Max was an Aussie rules football, followed by a dinosaur. When Stynes reveals the gender swap, he is speechless. “Really?!” he sputters after a moment. “Are you joking?!”
He realises that his perception of the baby’s gender affected his behaviour. “I can honestly say that that would change the way I’d play with the baby,” he admits.
This type of conditioning may seem benign but has serious ramifications. Offering children a narrow choice of toys based on their gender limits the skills they develop as they grow up. Girls’ toys emphasise qualities related to caring and nurturing (and, unfortunately, appearance), while boys’ toys promote skills like spatial awareness.
“Limiting girls to traditional girl toys has a direct impact on the underrepresentation of women in science and technology and engineering,” says Dr Metta.
It’s true that men far outnumber women in STEM industries, despite no difference between the sexes in innate ability in science and maths. Boys are more likely to study STEM subjects in Year 12, and just 16 per cent of university and VET STEM graduates are female. In universities, 40 per cent of junior academic staff is female, while just 17 per cent of STEM professors are female.
STEM’s gender inequality extends to income: 32 per cent of male STEM graduates earn more than $104,000pa (the top income bracket) compared to 12 per cent of female grads.
Gender stereotyping has serious social consequences too. “We socialise girls into thinking and believing that their appearance and looking attractive…is a big part of being a girl,” says Dr Metta, which she says has a direct relationship with the large number of females among victims of sexual assault, harassment and family violence – the latter a national crisis that claims the life of one woman a week.
Boys also suffer from the effects of limiting gender stereotypes. Playing with traditional feminine toys like dolls can help boys develop empathy and interpersonal skills. “Those skills are crucial for healthy emotional development,” says Dr Metta.
“We need to create a world that’s a lot more…gender free,” she says, “so boys and girls are not conditioned into those fixed, very limited and damaging roles and stereotypes.”
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @nicoheath
Is Australia Sexist? premieres on SBS on December 4 at 8.40pm. The show will also be available to stream on SBS On Demand.