My two-year-old is obsessed with the gender of things. If it’s pink, it’s for girls. If it’s blue, it’s for boys and she doesn’t want anything to do with it, thanks. Or in her words, “No please!”
For this toddler, dress-ups have become the exclusive domain of princesses and brides (she calls them ‘wedding girls’) decked out in flowing dresses, capes and wands. She recently rejected a dinosaur costume on the grounds that “it’s not pretty!”
Very much a daddy’s girl in the past, she now asks for me at bedtime. “No boys,” she says. “Just girls.”
As a feminist and committed gender neutralist, this is tough to deal with. It’s pretty much exactly what I wanted to avoid, and I have to give her credit for challenging my most closely held ideals at such an early age. I wasn’t expecting this sort of ideological headache until my kids were teenagers.
I know you can’t shield your children from the outside world. I can try to make our home free from gender bias – but they still encounter it everywhere: in our behaviour, on television, at the shops and at school and daycare.
The error lies in a system that holds the black and white view that all girls are feminine and all boys are masculine, with no scope for movement between the two.
Before I had children, I was pretty intolerant of the trappings of traditional femininity. It was something that had never really appealed to me. I could take or leave makeup, shopping and dresses. My daughter, I assured myself, would play with trucks and blocks, not dolls.
But now I realise I was mistaken. There’s nothing wrong with playing with dolls; kids love mimicking their parents and it’s developmentally appropriate. Now I’m all for dolls. Boys should be encouraged to play with dolls more often. Nor is there anything wrong with wearing dresses and skirts – save their occasional impracticality for crawling and climbing.
The error lies in a system that holds the black and white view that all girls are feminine and all boys are masculine, with no scope for movement between the two, and values traditionally feminine pursuits less than masculine interests.
As a society, we believe girls like playing with dolls because females have a natural aptitude for nurturing. Whether it’s true or not, we encourage girls in this sort of play.
But this belief contributes to gender inequality among adults. Two-thirds of primary carers in Australia are female. Women consistently do more unpaid domestic work than men, regardless of employment status. The 2016 Census revealed that one in four Australian men does ZERO hours of housework each week.
Our workforce is highly gender segregated. According to one government report, six out of 10 Australian workers are employed in an industry that is dominated by one gender. It’s no surprise that it’s the female-dominated industries – childcare, education, aged care – that are less well paid.
My daughter’s interest in feminine pursuits could see her paid considerably less than her male classmates if she pursues a career in a traditionally female field. “A woman working in a female-dominated industry would on average, earn almost $40,000 less at total remuneration than the average full-time total remuneration of a man in a male-dominated industry,” states the report.
She’s a girl who likes pink, a girl colour. But what else is girly? Being pretty? Being bad at maths? Being weak?
Just because little girls like princesses doesn’t mean they should be overlooked for leadership roles as adults. The fact that girls, like my daughter, enjoy playing with dolls as children shouldn’t mean that they are expected to do the bulk of childcare and domestic chores as adults. A preference for pink doesn’t explain the gender pay gap.
I worry that my daughter is absorbing codes of behaviour and negative value judgements associated with femininity at the same time she’s categorising everything according to gender. She’s a girl who likes pink, a girl colour. But what else is girly? Being pretty? Being bad at maths? Being weak? These damaging stereotypes, which do not at all reflect the true state of girlhood, are felt from an early age.
When she says she wants to be pretty, I tell her that ‘pretty’ isn’t important to me and offer a list of other adjectives that her older sister now knows by heart: “Clever. Brave. Kind.”
“Look at me! I’m a pretty princess,” she announced one afternoon last week.
“Why do you want to be pretty?!” responded her sister. “I’m an adventurer princess!”
I’m claiming it as a win.
Is Australia Sexist? premieres on SBS Australia, 4 December, 8.40pm, and will be available to stream at SBS On Demand.