“Boys are stronger and have more jobs.” – 7 year-old boy
“Boys are fitter and stronger.” – young girl
“Men are better at being in charge.” – 7 year-old girl
“Boys are more important ’cause they can protect girls.” – grade school boy
What are girls better at? “Being pretty… and wearing dresses.” – grade school girl
If these responses don’t scare you, they should. After only seven years on this planet, children have shaped stereotypes about girls’ and boys’ natural abilities and potential to be leaders. And even though these quotes might sound like “positive” appraisals of boys, parents of boys need to be worried, too.
No More Boys and Girls?
BBC Two aired “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Children Go Gender-Free?” last Thursday, the first episode of a two-part series. Dr. Javid Abdelmoneim undertook an experiment in an elementary school classroom in the U.K. to gauge attitudes about gender roles and gender stereotypes among young children; only seven years-old. He wants to explore whether these childhood beliefs impact inequality among adults? Along with interviewing the children, he collaborated with the teacher to try a couple strategies to change these attitudes.
While the goals and intent of this series are laudable, the title feels a bit sensational. Before the episode even aired, Twitter users lashed out, accusing the liberal media of trying to erase gender and forever scar our kids. To be clear, this experiment does NOT aim to erase gender from children wholesale; it tries to de-emphasize the role of gender in defining kids’ abilities and attitudes.
But the experiment is a worthy and needed one. Even though they could have chosen a slightly better title, it did create buzz and dialogue. I hope the initial critics took the time to actually watch it, because we ALL need to question our own attitudes and use tangible strategies to change beliefs.
“No More Boys and Girls” highlighted three main problems for children:
- Girls lack confidence. Boys overestimate themselves. Boys overestimate how well they will perform by about 3 times. While 50% of boys say they’re “the best,” only 10% of girls will say the same. Shouldn’t all young kids think they’re awesome? They haven’t even hit puberty yet.
- Boys have trouble with emotions. Whereas girls had many, many synonyms they could associate with each emotion, boys did not. The only exception was “anger,” the one emotion that boys easily described. But they didn’t necessarily know how to handle anger – a problem that won’t get any easier in adulthood. And before people start throwing around Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus explanations, a cognitive neuroimaging expert weighed in on the differences between male and female brains. Professor Gina Rippon said that structurally, there are very few differences between the brains. Instead, brain development is “very much entangled with society, upbringing, and experiences.”
- Children believe outdated gender stereotypes about men and women from a young age. Regardless of gender, children mostly believed that boys are stronger, natural-born leaders, and girls’ best asset is their appearance. They believed that makeup artists and dancers were always women, while mechanics and magicians were usually men.
The children’s quotes above are disheartening, but sadly not too surprising.
The differences we’re seeing…it’s not because they were determined at the moment of conception. It’s because a hungry brain arrives in the world and the world is instantly plunging it into a tsunami of pink and blue,” Professor Rippon said.
How Do We Change Children’s Perceptions About Gender?
The experiment targeted seven year-olds for good reason: while they have tangible beliefs, their beliefs are still “moldable.”
Dr. Abdelmoneim worked with a very open-minded primary school teacher to implement strategies in the class to limit stereotypes that may damage children’s long-term growth and potential, in and outside of education.
1. Make more inclusive spaces.
The coat closets had previously been separated by gender, for no reason other than tradition. Activity: the students painted over the coat closets and now could choose where to hang their coats. (No one was quite as thrilled about the prospect of merging bathrooms, and it’s unclear if that actually happened.) With less separation of genders, kids will feel more unified as children instead of split into categories with pre-determined traits. Activity: The small library needed an overhaul, too. They found that far fewer of the lead characters were female. And many of the books enforced traditional gender stereotypes through hobbies and characteristics. After they fixed it, the kids gave a resounding “thumbs up” to the new library.
2. Highlight similarities; not differences.
The goal here was not to erase their gender, but de-emphasize its importance to education, school activities and learning. Activity. They hung signs on classroom walls, like “Boys are sensitive” and “Girls are strong.” While I love that these slogans defy traditional stereotypes, they may actually diminish the goal of highlighting similarities because they group children into genders again. Why not hang signs that say “Children are caring” and “Students are strong”?
Many assume that boys are better at spatial skills and that girls prefer nurturing activities. But the experiment showed in the trailer where adults played with babies (dressed as opposite genders) was a dramatic reflection of the inherent biases we have, and how adults direct children into toys and activities based on those biases. They gave fluffy stuffed animals to the baby they thought was a girl, and gave robots and more physical play to the baby dressed as a boy.
We’re trying to teach children that they can be what they want to be. But yet we’re still forcing an identity on a child.” – Adult participant in experiment
According to the professor, playing a game like Tetris (which focuses on geometric shapes) regularly for three months can actually change the development of the brain to improve spatial skills. Activity: In the classroom, Dr. Abdelmoneim introduced tangrams so that every child would regularly flex that brain muscle.
4. Make kids see they’re equally strong.
To combat the notion that “boys are stronger than girls,” they used a fun carnival game. Until adolescence, boys and girls of the same physical size have absolutely no difference in strength. Activity: The kids estimated how high they could hammer the High Striker strength test, with most girls underestimating their ability.
Boys saw firsthand that many of the girls surpassed the boys’ own scores. Sixty-three percent (63%) of boys had a tough time dealing with the results (there we go again with the emotions problem). We watched as one 7 year-old boy threw a tantrum on the floor, looking more like a 2 year-old than a primary school student. Boys need to know and accept that girls will outperform them regularly.
5. Diminish teacher bias in school.
The friendly teacher frequently used “love and sweet pea” to address the girls and “mate or fella” for the boys, so they hung a chart that let students keep tabs on his endearments. Activity: A basket of balls with students’ names also helped diminish any teacher tendency to call on boys or favored students more often than others, especially for “leader activities” in the classroom. These activities are critical to make girls feel that their contributions are valuable and respected, and that they can take up just as much space, metaphoric and literal, as the boys.
6. Use the power of role models.
Kids were confident that certain jobs were only for men or women, such as firefighter or hairdressers. Girls’ career aspirations included pop star and teacher, while one boy wanted to be a pilot. Activity: The teacher asked students to draw a magician and a mechanic (all drew men), and a makeup artist and dancer (all drew women). Then they met real adults in these professions who were the opposite gender from what the children expected. Possibly the most effective solution, when children get to meet role models, it forever alters their perceptions about what men and women can do, and their own potential.
How Can We Diminish Gender Stereotypes in Schools?
Part 2 of the series airs on Wednesday, and is set to explore whether these interventions worked! I can’t wait to see it. In Part 2, I also hope to see a few more topics addressed:
Where do the children learn these stereotypes? While much of their learning happens at school, home is a huge influence and their family environment can play a major role in altering their beliefs. Also, do they grasp media literacy? The ability to analyze and critique the hundreds of media messages they receive every day is critical to their development.
More integration. The children thankfully sat in mixed-gender clusters of desks, but recess was very segregated. No news there. In addition to free play, which is very important, I’d love to see facilitated physical activities with all students. Do they have physical education (gym) class? Do they have the opportunity to run and compete together? This will undoubtedly increase girls’ confidence and boys’ understanding that girls are worthy competitors.
Value “feminine” traits. “No More Boys and Girls” had a slight undercurrent that we need to prove girls are just as good as boys. But the problem is deeper. Having girls act more like boys isn’t the answer. I would love to see more emphasis placed on characteristics traditionally considered feminine, such as listening skills, compassion and kindness, and teamwork. Many boys possess these qualities too, but they are not valued in boys OR girls.
What do you think? Will girls in this class develop more confidence? Will boys learn how to identify their emotions and grapple with them? Will both girls and boys see themselves as equals?
Outside of the U.K., watch the first episode here.