I don’t often write about current events. After all, I’m an archaeologist by training and it’s typically ancient history that makes me sit up and pay attention. But catching up on the recent two-part series “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” touched a nerve. As someone who worked for an organization that speaks about the importance of getting women to follow a career in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)—and as some who was usually the only woman in a room full of roboticists—this is a topic near and dear to my heart.
First, ignore the inflammatory title—clearly someone at BBC wanted this to be considered controversial. It’s not about doing away with boys or girls, but rather eliminating the differences in how they are treated. Within the show itself, the terminology used is “gender neutral” (personally, I prefer “gender equal” as “neutral” calls to mind shades of beige, but I digress …). The two-part series is built around lead presenter Dr. Javid Abdelmoneim and teacher Mr. Graham Andre treating the boys and girls in a class of seven year olds alike, challenging assumptions, and taking steps to tackle both conscious and unconscious biases. Along the way, they highlight how seemingly insignificant differences can have an insidious effect.
Perhaps most glaring was how the confidence of girls is eroded by a slow, steady attrition that begins in infancy. A recent study showed that girls lose confidence in themselves by the age of six, and this was borne out within the class. Overall, girls described themselves in terms of their looks, and underestimated their ability to perform on both tests and athletics. Both they and the boys used superlatives to describe males: better, stronger, cleverer.
Yet is this really a surprise when children begin to be treated differently even before birth? Gender reveal parties use creative ways of showing pink and blue … even though the association of these colours with girls and boys is completely cultural and arbitrary, not based on any biological preference (after all, babies start out seeing only black, white, and grey!). Once the baby has arrived, stereotypes are perpetuated in greeting cards and gifts: pink and soft for girls, blue and more rough-and-tumble for boys. Then the clothes: girls get flowers and told they are pretty. Boys get to be future scientists. In toys, girls are stuck inside with princesses and domestic toys in the ubiquitous pink. Boys get to build and create, or are encouraged to go outside to play sports.
Imagine a household where a brother is raised with toys that encourage him to build things and given clothes that highlight his potential, while his sister is surrounded by dolls and dressed in clothing that calls her “cute” or “pretty”. Each of them is implicitly told what the expectations are for each gender. Is it any wonder then that bit by bit, year after year, fewer and fewer girls want to study science and engineering? Society’s message is one of “This isn’t for you.”
Yet, just like colours, jobs don’t have a gender. Girls can be architects. Boys can be nurses.
And it’s not just the girls who are affected by being treated differently. The “boys will be boys” and “boys don’t cry” mindset was already affecting how the boys in the class expressed their emotions or, rather, didn’t express them. Anger was the only emotion that the boys could describe as well as the girls, and they scored much lower in ability to empathise.
Two books I read recently also made the case for something that is touched upon in the series, the idea that traits that are perceived as innate or natural are, in reality, the result of practice. Matthew Syed’s Bounce: Thy Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success both use the example of an elite Canadian youth hockey team where it was noticed that the majority of the players had a birthday in the first quarter of the year, far more than could be accounted for by chance. With a bit of digging, it was found that the children’s leagues use the calendar year for enrolment. At the age of six, children can vary considerably by size and coordination, so when coaches were picking children for the more advanced teams, they would select the larger, more coordinated kids who were born at the beginning of the year. Those children would then have the opportunity for more coaching, practice, and time on the ice. Over time, these adolescents became stars, not because of innate talent, but because they were given the opportunity to hone a skill over many years.
The idea that males are naturally better at spatial reasoning was an example challenged in the show and it’s easy to see how this could occur. Let’s say that by the age of seven boys have had 3-4 years of doing things like building with Lego or playing Minecraft. They have this opportunity because these are “boys’ toys”: these are the things they are given and encouraged to play with. They are now considered “good” at such activities. Having mastery over a subject can encourage you to pursue it more and, conversely, feeling inept can lead to less practice. The deficit between the girls will then only continue to grow over time.
Likewise, studies have shown that parents talk to their daughters more and using more emotive language than when speaking to sons. This exposure to language and encouragement to be verbal rather than physical means that boys have less practice at emotional regulation. Perhaps the idea that boys mature slower is also down to this lack of practice?
The series made me realise how fortunate I was to have had what I consider a fairly gender neutral childhood. I was surrounded by all types of books from a young age, given gifts like chemistry sets and remote control cars, and had teachers who cultivated an interest in science as well as English. I always felt I could be whatever I wanted to be, that there were no limitations to what I could accomplish. All children should have the opportunity to feel that way.
During my recent Irish holiday, we visited one of my favourite places in all of Ireland, Dublin’s Long Room at Trinity College. It is perhaps the prettiest library on the planet, but I noticed that something was missing. There is not one woman in the rows of busts that depict great writers and thinkers of the past. How much talent has been lost throughout history because half of the population were not able to exercise their full potential? How many scientific discoveries were not made sooner … or at all? How many works of art or literature, plays, films, or musical compositions could not be realised because of societal limitations? We all benefit when everyone is able to contribute.
My argument has long been that we are focusing on the wrong part of the people pipeline. By the time students are choosing graduate work it is far too late to influence their choices. It is society that needs to change before we have any hope of increasing equality in the STEM fields and across the board. The public in general and parents in particular must recognise the role they play in shaping the next generation … and gender pre-conceptions shouldn’t become part of the mould.
So I wish Dr. Javid Abdelmoneim and Mr. Graham Andre all the best in convincing classrooms across the country to adopt a gender neutral approach so that children can be free – to follow their own path and make their own choices.
I was just putting the finishing touches on this blog post when I attended one of those meetings where there was no female academic representation. In speaking with one of the male academics who has been successful in forming a more gender-balanced lab, he believed that what worked was having women in senior positions as role models. I think this is a significant point because it helps counter the impression that women don’t belong in various careers, and there is research to back up the importance of having positive role models.
However, I think he was too modest to mention the role he played in making sure women had the opportunity to take up such a position in the first place: it’s a well-known phenomenon that managers tend to appoint people who are like them, not necessarily those who are best qualified for the role. So there is also the need for men to be willing to speak up about the necessity for greater inclusivity, as well as take the steps to do something about it.