How godparents can help raise gender neutral kids

With 3 nephews, 1 niece and a slew of other children of whom we adore, being a conscious godparent has never been more topical. I first noticed it when shopping for baby gifts for impending births where the parents didn’t want to know the sex of their unborn children. I had no idea how difficult it would be to find baby gifts that didn’t go down the blue or pink route from the word ‘Congratulations’ onwards. And that’s just the start of their life…let alone years of untold gift giving! It was enough to inspire us to put together a list-

  1. Ensure kids see or even meet role models who don’t fit gender stereotypes; female mechanic, male ballet dancer. This is about the same adage we see in the workplace in that ‘You can’t be What You Can’t See’ – this is vital even if your son shows no interest in being a ballet dancer – to succeed in the 21st century, these children will need to respect that girls and boys can literally be anything they want – even if they haven’t seen it with their own eyes before.
  2. Avoid ‘gender-appropriate’ toys. My brother’s favourite toy when we were growing up was Michael, his beloved Cabbage Patch Kid. He’s now a devoted father who takes on full parenting and shows all three of his little ones huge affection – perhaps not unrelated to the way he showered affection on Michael. Play lego, Minecraft and Tangram puzzles with your girls – all of which improve spatial awareness; a learned, not innate skill. The very basic differences we see in girls and boys’ brains, scientists now think are down to repeated exposure to different types of play and experiences, rather than any inherent gender difference.
  3. Point out countries where ‘genetic differences’ hold no water. When doing my PhD at Cambridge, I focused on women engineers because I believed it’s a field where hardly any women tread. While that’s true in the UK and the US, in Malaysia and South Korea, and other parts of Central Asia, it simply isn’t. Because the numbers of female participation in STEM vary from country to country, it suggests socialisation is the factor – not innate biology.
  4. Pick children’s books with a caring male hero and an adventurous female heroine. Merely seeing girls play a more active role than princess or a boy sharing empathy for others reinforces that these are human, not gendered traits.
  5. As pre-puberty girls and boys actually have no physical difference between their muscle mass, their younger years is the time to be exposing your daughter to play activities that require muscle, and for boys, activities that encourage team-building. Children who claim boys are ‘strong’ and girls are ‘sweet’ need to be praised when they show the opposite gendered qualities. Otherwise the labels they hear from others become self-fulfilling prophecy and a way for them to label and therefore limit themselves.
  6. Avoid gendered clothing that again tells children what to believe about themselves. We love 8 year old Daisy Williams calling out Tesco on their gendered slogans, that went viral.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that putting a girl in a shirt claiming she’s ‘too pretty for homework’ or a boy that he’s ‘out for trouble’ will have ramifications, both on the behaviours they children feel they need to act up to expectations and also in the way adults interact with them. Check out John Lewis for their move towards removing gender-labelled clothing.


Research shows hugely sexist ‘water-cooler talk’ among economists

Alice Wu, a doctoral student at Harvard conducted a groundbreaking Master’s thesis that used machine learning to look at over a million posts on, a site where economists ‘gossip’ about upcoming roles and the industry as a whole. Because so many informal conversations have migrated to the online space, it offers us a statistically significant amount of anonymous water-cooler talk amongst professionals. Using machine learning technology, she looked at the 30 most commonly used words when people were discussing women and men. As explained by economics writer Justin Wolfers in the New York Times, horrifically, the top 10 for women were: hotter, lesbian, baby, sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut and hot. The top ten words for men however do not make for such uncomfortable and hostile reading and include positive words relevant to economics such as: adviser, Austrian (a school of thought in economics), mathematician, pricing, textbook, Wharton (Donald Trump’s alma mater), goals, greatest, Nobel. 

Interestingly, the male list also has a gendered tone with words suggesting competition amongst men at the forefront such as bullying, burning and fought. Ms. Wu states ‘the anonymity of these online posts eliminates any social pressure participants may feel to edit their speech’ and so perhaps allowed her ‘to capture what people believe but not would not openly say’. She’s been criticised for her sample population and while her sample may not represent the economics community as a whole, it is very worrying for two main reasons. First, as we’ve seen in politics even a vocal minority can shift a culture when allowed to spread falsehoods. Anonymously sourced gossip can spread like wildfire, harming people’s careers. The second reason for concern is that the people most likely to use this particular online site are younger on average – suggesting that waiting for better behaviour from seemingly more progressive millennials to ’trickle down’ is not sufficient. Third, economists make decisions every day about what topics to research, which data to assess, which social & business issues deserve public attention that like everyone else are borne out of their personal biases. These results don’t make for optimistic reading as to how they’ll regard the topics that will affect both women and me in the years to come. 

Lessons I learned the hard way through awards

Have you ever diminished good feedback after it’s come your way? A few weeks ago I received Commendation for ‘Women of Innovation’ prize as part of the Herald’s Global Game Changers Awards. After entering, I’d had coffee with my nominator who shared that I’d made a favourable impression on the judges. My first response was to doubt how stiff the competition actually was if I had stood out to them. I could see him looking at me, incredulous at this initial reaction – probably thinking ‘that’s the last award I’ll put you up for’. He then responded saying that ‘Women of Innovation’ had actually been one of the most hotly contested categories with nearly 100 applicants. Two things simultaneously went through my mind: ‘Wow – that makes me feel oddly better’ and ‘Why is it that women feel comfortable entering a ‘Women in…’ category but not the non-gender specific categories like ‘Best New Innovation’?

What does that mean about confidence levels amongst women but also the likelihood of them succeeding when they do enter mainstream categories? Confidence and perceived likely chances of success are interlinked. As anyone who has attended other industry based awards ceremonies can attest, women-led companies are rarely deemed the ‘winners’ by judges. Judging panels are often made up of white male experts who will have their own expectations as to what ‘great’ looks like. That doesn’t create the greatest confidence in a time-pressed professional woman about her likely chances of success. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ the saying goes and how motivated am I going to be to spend my time entering a competition if I’ve not seen someone who looks like me ever win?  Indeed, I was once asked to help in a start-up hack-athon for undergraduates, I noted all the female volunteers served as mentors throughout the 16 hour weekend to help guide the students – it was a time heavy commitment. The men on the other hand had volunteered to be the ‘judges’ which required just 2 hours of their time on the final day. Canny for them to save their time  – but it would have been better if the organisers had noticed this disparity from the start and balanced the decks.

A great reminder to:

  1. Don’t diminish any positive feedback you get – it sends the wrong message to the listener, but also to yourself.  
  2. Ensure your judging panels are balanced demographically so that women are as likely to win, and therefore future women are likely to enter a wider range of categories.