I was in a toyshop in the well-to-do Melbourne suburb of Armadale not long ago when I noticed that the owner evidently felt no shame in sharply dividing the shop into a blue section for boys and a pink section for girls. Annoyed by the unnecessary delineation, I became further incensed when I heard a woman tell the shopkeeper: “All girls like pink, it’s in their genes.”
I had been just as enraged a few weeks earlier when my then eight-year old daughter had come home from school moaning that the librarian had discouraged her from borrowing a book from the Wimpy Kid series on the grounds that it was a “boy’s book” because it contained “toilet humour”. As it happens my daughter is rather partial to toilet humour – such is her age.
Even the most ill informed amongst us must be aware by now that genetics does not tell the whole story of who we are or who we are meant to be. We have surely moved on from puppy dogs’ tails and sugar and spice. In Delusions of Gender, Melbourne University psychologist and writer Cordelia Fine argues there are no major hardwired neurological differences between men and women. Any differences are in fact malleable.
Pushing back against gender socialisation is like pushing back against the wind.
“What I found was a great deal of evidence that our minds are exquisitely attuned to the social environment, and surprisingly sensitive to gender stereotypes,” she told American Scientist.
When we grow up learning by osmosis that men are competitive, aggressive and strong, and that women are emotional, verbal, multi-taskers, we bend to those stereotypes. We are deeply socialised to think like this. We’re so socialised to think in this binary way, that we inevitably bring up children to think in the same way. Pushing back against gender socialisation is like pushing back against the wind. Perhaps that’s why so many people simply don’t try.
Last week Brighton Grammar, a private boys school in Victoria, expelled two Year-11 boys after it was discovered they set up an Instagram account that featured photos of young girls (without their knowledge) and invited people to vote for the “slut of the year”.
Talkback radio, newspapers and online forums were aflame with endless debates about whether private schools bred male entitlement, whether the Respectful Relationships program in schools had failed or whether widely available pornography on the internet was to blame.
The mother of one of the vilified 12-year-old girls said she didn’t blame the school for the incident but held the boys’ parents responsible. She was possibly the only one talking any sense.
Schools can provide a framework of values around which education takes place but it’s parents who are ultimately responsible for bringing up children to respect the opposite sex. We can teach children how to be compassionate, assertive, fair, honest, tolerant and a host of other things because parents have done this forever.
But how do you teach boys to respect girls when, since the beginning of time, men have looked upon women as less than equal? The birthplace of disrespect is inequality. And anyone who thinks women are equal to men should bear in mind that the gender pay gap stands at around 19 per cent in Australia, women bear the brunt of domestic violence and neither the government nor employers have tried hard enough to structure work to accommodate mothering. And that’s just a few examples.
If we want to break free of socialisation that embeds deep-seated gender stereotypes, we inevitably have to rethink everything. A big ask, I know. As adults it is perhaps too late for us to re-program our own already socialised minds. But it’s not too late to raise children differently, not too late to feed them a different message.
When my daughter gravitated towards pink because of peer pressure I told her: “pink is good, but punk is better”.
Are parents consciously trying to do this? Even if they did on a micro level, it would be a start.
When my daughter gravitated towards pink because of peer pressure I told her: “pink is good, but punk is better”. When I shop for clothes for her, I leave her at home and deliberately pick a selection of clothes from the girls and boys sections. I don’t tell her she is pretty, I tell her she looks smart. My daughter now is 10-years-old and on the cusp of turning into a young lady and absorbing everything that young girls have forced upon them through advertising, mass media, their peers and other influences. I know I can’t stop this, but I can offer her alternatives and help her think differently.
There are a million small ways to push back against gender socialisation. But when I hear someone say pink is in a girl’s genes, or that Wimpy Kid books are for boys or that boys have called for votes on the “slut of the year” for fun, I know there are too many adults who either don’t care about eradicating inequality between the sexes, or who just don’t try hard enough.
Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter: sushidas1