From the mouths of babes:
- “Men have harder jobs, so they earn more"
- “Men are better at being in charge”
- “Men are cleverer because they can be President”
A scintillating new BBC show called ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ asks the nation to think about the ways in which our often unconscious gender biases affect young people. This is not a new question, but in recent years it has garnered more and more attention, with research across the globe showing the negative impact biases are having on the psychological health of young people, particularly girls.
Gender biases begin as soon as a child is born as adults unwittingly interact with babies through gender-tinted lenses. This continues throughout childhood; often well-meaning people encourage ‘boys to be boys’; whilst simultaneously suggesting that perhaps a doll would be a more suitable toy for a girl. Although times are changing, schools have perpetuated these biases; homework has long featured men in active or physical roles and women in the home. Research has shown that teachers’ unconscious biases have an ‘asymmetric’ and long-term effect on pupils, weighted heavily towards male achievements.
In the programme, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim begins his experiment into gender neutral classrooms with a series of assessment questions to measure the psychological traits of 23 seven-year-olds. The questions are designed to measure traits from self-confidence to spatial awareness. Those initial tests show that boys have higher self-esteem, but lower emotional intelligence, and the girls are just the opposite. Perhaps this is unsurprising when one considers the fact that girls as young as six believe that brilliance is a male trait or indeed that girls self-confidence drops as they get older, whilst male confidence grows. Could these biases, ingrained so early, be partly responsible for wider social inequalities, such as the gender pay gap which still stands at 18%?
After removing obviously gendered items from around the classroom, for example pink and blue coat hangers, Dr Abdelmoneim begins to tackle more subtle biases such as the use of terms of endearment by the teacher, such as ‘fella’ or ‘love.’ After six weeks of gender neutral schooling, the pupils are retested, and the results are stark. The difference in self-esteem between girls and boys dropped from 8% to 0.2%. Boys displayed far more empathy and kindness and their behaviour improved by 57%.
It is important to note that gender stereotypes are not just damaging to girls. Through the same mechanisms, for instance, boys learn to repress and internalise their emotions. Studies show that those excluded from schools are far more likely to be boys, and that exclusions are often to do with disruptive or violent behaviour. Perhaps this is because, traditionally, boys are not encouraged to talk about their feelings. This dynamic is perfectly illustrated by two of the male pupils in Dr Abdelmoneim’s class, who after the experiment said, “I think it’s better to express yourself rather than just getting angry.” And another who said: “I don’t think I strop anymore because I just talk about it. I’ve learnt it’s better to talk than strop.”
This TV show, although interesting is just a drop in the ocean when one considers how entrenched ideas about gender are. However, the questions raised by Dr Abdelmoneim are a reflection of a growing concern within society. The Advertising Standards Agency has just changed its guidelines to protect children from ‘restrictive’ gender norms. Clarks recently came under fire for providing ‘inferior’ shoes for girls. The boys’ shoes were designed to be durable and comfortable, whilst the girls shoes were more ‘stylish’ and completely unsuitable for outdoor activities. Parent led campaigns such as ‘Let Toys Be Toys,’ which began on Mumsnet, have had incredible success lobbying corporations such as Boots to remove their ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections.
Schools often function as a kind of microcosm of wider society so it is crucial that we continue to ask these questions and adjust our behaviours accordingly. Especially as even in 2017, 57% of teachers admitted to having unconscious biases about girls and boys in STEM subjects. It is through education that we can facilitate and inspire students to look beyond gender tropes, so they can help make the world a more equal and interesting place. Or failing that, at least they will enter the world on an equal footing.