Do you ever wonder why our society is so obsessed with gender? What makes it SO important that most of us simply cannot relate to a person unless we know their gender? Are boys and girls innately different or is it society that shapes us? I have wondered this for a long time, and finally I found a book that offered real, evidence-based answers:
Here’s what I learnt from the book
We are obsessed with gender.
The first thing a baby is likely to hear when out of the womb is a pronouncement of his/her gender. Every day, for the first weeks and months of a child’s life, they hear their parents announce over and over which gender they are. We use gender to label, sort, segregate and even colour-code people. It becomes the most important category to which a child belongs. it is like saying to our children, “Your gender is really, really important. It determines what activities you’ll like and how you will behave. Please pay attention to how boys and girls behave and act and shape your preferences accordingly.”
We humans love to categorise things.
Creating stereotypes is an innate trait – it’s a way for us to quickly and easily understand our world, and we do this from a young age. The reason that so many stereotypes centre around gender is because that’s the focus our society gives it. If we give children a different focus, they will just as quickly create stereotypes around that.
A study on stereotypes.
Rebecca Bigler, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas, shows that simply labelling a group leads children to develop stereotypes about that group. For example, students in a primary school class were each given a red or blue T-shirt and told to wear it every day for six weeks. The teachers treated these colour groups in the same ways they would treat gender. They said, “Good morning, blue kids, red kids!” “Let’s line up blue, red, blue, red.” Names were written on a blue or red bulletin board and students had a card of that colour on their desk. Students weren’t asked to compete with each other and the teachers showed no favouritism towards either group. They simply labelled the kids as being red or blue, over and over again.
In the next classroom, a ‘control’ group of children wore red and blue T-shirts but the teachers never mentioned the colour.
After only four weeks, children formed stereotypes about their colour-coded groups. They liked their own group better than the other group. Red-shirted children would say, ‘The blue kids are not as smart as the red kids.’ Just like with gender, they said that all blue kids act one way and no red kids act another way. They began to segregate themselves, playing with kids from their own colour group more than those with the other colour group, and were more willing to help kids in their own group.
The children in the control group didn’t form any stereotypes based on colour. If adults ignored the groups, even when there were very visible differences, children did too.
Simply by mentioning gender all the time, and sorting our world based on gender (think separate toilets for men and women, separate sporting events for men and women, separate clothing areas in department stores…) even if we never say anything stereotyped about a particular gender, our children will form the stereotypes for themselves.
We shape ourselves to fit our group.
Through similar classroom experiments, Bigler showed that children teach themselves to like and remember the activities favoured by their group, and tend to dislike and forget the details of activities favoured by the other group. This explains why boys may like remember every make and model of cars, while girls might like and remember details of how to use make up. Children quickly identify which group they belong to, and set about shaping their own knowledge preferences to fit.
We trick ourselves into believing our own stereotypes.
Children (and adults too) tend to forget exceptions to the stereotypes. For example, many children form the stereotype that women like cooking. Even when researchers show children a photo of a man standing in front of a stove, and tell the that this man likes to cook dinner for his family, if they ask the children about the man later, it doesn’t alter their stereotypes about cooking. Some children, when shown a picture of a female school principal would later remember her as the ‘lunch lady’ or ‘secretary’, while they’d remember the male cook at a hospital as being a doctor. We actually alter our memories to fit our stereotypes, rather than allowing our stereotypes to be altered by experience.
What can we do?
Because stereotypes are so hard to change, it’s good to get in at birth if possible. But we can all start to shift things now by ending the way we label and divide our world by gender. Instead of saying ‘fireman’ say ‘firefighter’. Instead of saying ‘See that man over there?’ say ‘See that person over there? The one with the blue shirt?’ Instead of saying ‘Good girl,’ say ‘Good kid’. Don’t invite ‘the girls’ over, invite your ‘friends’ instead. As shown in the classroom with red and blue T-shirts, language is powerful. Small alterations can make a big difference.
Let’s get started today. Who wants to join me in going gender-neutral for one week? Watch your language and see if you can delete gender from it as much as possible.
If you’d like a print of this painting to remind you to stay on track with going gender-neutral, you can order one here.