Pink for girls, blue for boys: What’s the harm in gender stereotypes?

Little boy in pink sunglasses

Are we guilty of telling our children who they are before they’re even born? Gender stereotyping, for better or worse, happens frequently in everyday life.

Rather than being determined by biology, the majority of gender differences are created by social constructs and our environment. The gendered behaviour patterns we display are not determined by our genes, but rather by society.

In her book, Delusions of Gender, neuroscientist Cordelia Fine shows the flawed reasoning, absurd arguments, and ingrained prejudices that prevent us from seeing how we reinforce gender stereotypes. She talks about how culture, our beliefs, and neurosexism all contribute to gender inequality and how they wire gender together. The good news is that we can adjust this environmental wiring since it is pliable, adaptive, and flexible.

Why does gender stereotyping matter?

On the surface, gender stereotypes might appear to be insignificant, but there is more to the problem than just a preference for dolls or dinosaurs.

Our children’s potential is severely limited and they may unintentionally suffer long-term harm if we impose rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity on them. Gender norms instruct girls to be “sugar and spice and all things nice” and to care about their beauty, while teaching boys to be tough and to suppress their feelings.

These gender norms can affect a child’s life in more ways. They have the potential to impair thier mental health, raise the suicide rate, lower self-esteem, create issues with body image and allow toxic masculinity and violence against women to continue unchecked. A focus on discrimination and stereotyping can make it harder for youngsters to fit into the “typical roles” of society.

When told the gender of a baby, our expectations of “what girls do” and “what boys do” is pre-determined before the child is even born. Adults make assumptions about the degree of masculinity or femininity of the baby. ‘Boys are busy’ and ‘girls are so compliant’, is something we hear all too often. The truth is that most children will exhibit variations, if allowed to in a safe and nurturing environment.

It’s important that children know that they can choose what they like over what is expected of them culturally.

Girls can do well at games, sports and STEM subjects, which society has typically associated with boys. Likewise, it’s important for boys to have the freedom to follow their interests and feelings regardless of whether it fits what people have traditionally thought is appropriate.

In fact, according to scientists, children don’t begin to realise that their gender is fixed or “permanent” until they are 6 or 7 years old. Making the first 6-7 years of life extremely critical in warding off toxic gender biases.

If we want a society where men are less aggressive and more considered, we must stop emotionally stunting boys and rather teach them that it’s acceptable to show emotions, both ‘good’ or ‘bad’  – and that they don’t need to ‘toughen up’. Similarly if women are to know they are equal and that they aren’t expected to be compliant and quiet, then we must stop telling young girls to behave and be polite.

It is unsurprising that we don’t have many women in STEM jobs, or a strong presence of men in the home or the care sector. Discriminating attitudes and a lack of role models continue to influence career choices and the life paths our children walk.

Many gender stereotypes are still embedded in our classrooms, school playgrounds and sports fields, and so we are challenging that.

In 2021 KILT had 51 children enroll in our LEGO Robotics programme. This project encourages girls to choose STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects in Gr 10 – 12 and to consider careers in these disciplines. Of these 51 children, 26 were girls — an encouraging 51 percent! In the same year, bold steps were also taken by getting girls involved in what are traditionally male-dominated sports like soccer and cricket.

At KILT we do not discriminate, we involve all eligible children regardless of gender. We are focused on enabling all children to complete a full 12 years of quality education. We are empowering children to speak up for their human rights and establish the self-confidence needed to take control of their own lives.

It’s time we challenge the conditions that lead kids to believe wholly false identities, which are unhealthy and completely avoidable. However, it is not simple to eradicate something that is so deeply ingrained in our culture, so much so that we frequently don’t even notice it.

What can we do?

There are ways parents, educators and caregivers can promote healthy gender development in children.

Words influence how children think, act, and feel about themselves. We need to stop using gendered biased language if we want young boys and girls to grow up equal and free.

For example, men who speak up are referred to as ‘assertive’ and ‘good leaders’, whereas women are referred to as ‘pushy’ or worse. We also need to stop commenting on what boys and girls wear, do and say. As children ourselves, we might have heard things like ‘boys don’t cry because that’s something for girls’ or ‘men have to work, and moms have to work while also taking care of the kids because that’s how it’s always been’.

The truth is, the ‘toughen up’ talk for boys and the ‘be sweet’ talk for girls makes them feel weaker. Instead, let’s teach kids to explore fully who they are and how to be good human beings, different and dynamic, and at the same time whole. Let’s also teach ALL kids that being vulnerable, getting something wrong and making mistakes are not the worst things in the world.

All children need the opportunity to explore different gender roles and different styles of living authentically. Parents can encourage both boys and girls to express themselves mentally, physically and emotionally.

As parents, let’s stop commenting on our girl children’s appearance and instead comment on what they have done or achieved. Let’s also let boy children cry when they are sad or sore in the hopes that one day they will be able to express themselves without fear or aggression.

Schools, organisations and parents can begin to challenge gender inequality in primary schools. This may be tricky but a starting point would be encouraging all children to take part in a range of activities and give them the space to express themselves without us placing our own ideals on their expression.

We also need retailers to stop marketing their products by gender, and to commit to being more gender-neutral. Do we really need a boys and girls clothing department? Before you answer that, pause and read that again and try answering without your cultural biology. It’s tough, right? But it’s necessary.

We should all work to overcome our own unconscious gendered bias. We can all do our part to combat gender inequality in the future and grow healthier and happier children by raising awareness of the problem and striving to dispel prejudices in whichever arena of life they arise.

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