5 things you can do to change the world for boys and girls
As we kick off 2018, we’ve been thinking about what we can do in the wake of 2017’s #MeToo campaigns to build a more equal world. And while it’s not exactly a new year’s resolution, we hope that 2018 will be the year that pushes us all to make a contribution to gender equality. So our kids aren’t still unpicking this in 2028.
Here are 5 positive actions we can all Take to start a change.
1.Get up, stand up
Perhaps the simplest and most important change we can all make. Don't be a bystander. If you see or hear someone making a derogatory, disrespectful, or even just off balance sexist comment, don’t just let it pass. Challenge it. It's especially important if you are not the target of the comment - it’s much harder to respond without being defensive if you feel stung by something. (Check this fine article about being a male feminist ally for more tips on this.)
You don’t have to be aggressive about it, but a simple ‘that’s not how I think’ lets the commenter know you’re not joining in with their standpoint. (And of course this applies to all forms of discrimination).
If you’re not sure whether something is sexist (and let’s be honest, we can all be a bit vague on this) just take Robert Webb’s approach and substitute another form of grouping humans - religion, class or skin colour for example - into the sentence. Mostly you’ll be horrified at what comes out.
Model this in front of your children and they’ll learn that you don’t let behaviour you don’t agree with go unmentioned.
2. Re-train your own brain
We’ve all got a great big pile of unconscious bias in our heads. We grew up and now live in a world that subtly (and not so subtly) tells us that there are massive differences between men and women, and that men are just, well, better than women.
To challenge this sexist soup we all swim in is really, really hard for adults, never mind for children, who are trying to work out how the world fits together. They learn what we tell them.
So think about whether what you’re saying to them is reinforcing sexist stereotypes, hopefully before you say it. But if it’s afterwards, even better to challenge your own thinking out loud. Kids need to know we're all working it out. No one has all the answers on this yet.
3. Ask the right questions
Kids are constantly getting messages about what they can and can’t do, from all sorts of places. Some of them are sensible ('don’t run into the road', 'don’t punch your brother in the face'), some of them are not ('don’t play with the pink toys', 'don’t admit you like maths').
If your child is giving you some hefty gender stereotyping, always ask them why they think that. Girls don’t play with the construction toys? 'Oh, why do you think that? Boys don’t read books? Where did you hear that? Once you’ve got a conversation going, there are always plenty of examples to prove that these are not rules. Kids need to learn to realise where their messages come from, and how to think around and analyse them - apart from anything else, in a world of fake news, this is a skill it seems they’re going to need more and more.
4. See (and say) similarity
If we always divide people into groups, we reinforce they idea that they are distinct. Refer to children repeatedly as girls and boys, and they’ll internalise the thought that they are quite different. They aren’t. There is no appreciable difference between men and women’s brains. Boys pre-puberty have no more testosterone than girls.
Anyone who saw the brilliant BBC documentary series No More Boys and Girls can tell you that no skills or talents are limited to boys or girls, except when social conditioning has told them that their gender makes a difference. We would never do this to our children with any other arbitrary marker of difference (see above).
A small change in how we refer to the small humans can make a big difference to their attitudes.
5. Shape up your school
School is where your children spend the majority of their time, and receive the bulk of their information about the world. If you can get your school on board with challenging gender stereotypes, they’ll be getting a double dose of critical thinking about the patriarchal society we live in.
The Let Toys be Toys campaign has expanded from lobbying retailers about gendered marketing of toys and now has many brilliant resources on how to approach this with your class teacher and with the school more widely, along with some myth busting research, which should open any teacher’s eyes.