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As a new aunt, 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… all of which have the potential to impact how children see themselves. It was enough to inspire us to put together a list-
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.