The world gets in

Sarah Ditum tells us she failed at combating gender stereotypes with her own children. She couldn’t bring herself to let her son age 4 go off to school with painted nails like hers because it could have led to teasing. We can’t just brush that off, can we, because it damn well might have…or, for that matter, though Sarah doesn’t say this, it could instead have led to teachers’ concluding he must be trans.

The idea of letting him break the boy code in such a visible way, and sending him off to school where he might have been teased for it by other children, was too much to take. So I did the work of the prospective bullies before they could. That’s the trouble with “gender-neutral parenting” – the world gets in.

And the world is getting less gender-neutral instead of more so. Who saw that coming?

And it matters. Nail polish is just nail polish, CBeebies is just CBeebies, and a “pretty like mummy” T-shirt is just a T-shirt – but it adds up to a rigorous training in how to be a girl or boy, which turns into strictly held ideas about how to be a woman or man. According to polling for the Fawcett Society to support its newly announced commission on gender stereotyping in early childhood (for which I’m a commissioner), more than half of those who recognised gender stereotyping had affected them said it constrained their career choices, while 44% said it had harmed their personal relationships.

We don’t know how much gender differences in behaviour are innate and how much they’re learned but we do know that much of what we think of as essential is thoroughly cultural. In some societies, women are deemed the chatty sex; in others, men. In some eras, male flamboyance has been the height of masculinity, while other periods have deemed it effete and shameful.

Whatever the shifting rules, they’re inextricably bound to social power and sexism. The stereotypes we absorb as children shape the adults we become. I failed at gender-neutral parenting, but any individual – or even family – alone must fail. The Fawcett Commission report is a chance for all participants to get it right. If we want to create a fairer world for women and men, we need to start with girls and boys.

A fair wind to them.

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