Headmistress's comment: Gender stereotyping - reducing opportunities for young people

Katy Guest, in The Independent on Sunday (18 December,2011), writes about gender stereotyping in the world of children’s toys. She quotes Jeong Mee Yoo the Korean artist whose Pink & Blue photography project reveals the extent of the problem. He says “…confectionery-pink objects … reveal a pervasive and culturally manipulated expression of ‘femininity’”.

If you are a parent it is undeniably true that you will have struggled to buy toys in colours other than blue or pink and it is highly likely, if my own experiences are typical, that you will have found it something of a challenge to buy many toys for girls which encourage them to be active and problem-solving rather than passive and pretty.

I frequently have lively debates with friends and family about whether women (and indeed men) are born or made. Indeed, when I was at university I remember very clearly my French oral exam in which I discussed “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (you are not born a woman but become one) by Simone de Beauvoir.

Many people will assume that babies have innate preferences from birth, but as mentioned in the The Independent on Sunday, Dr Cordelia Fine, an American psychologist and neuroscientist, has found that many of the experiments which apparently proved this were themselves flawed and simply reflected the prejudices of the researchers. Yet, as Dr Fine says “Children’s environments are relentlessly gendered.”

However, does this have to be a problem? Might it be a sensible division of labour if boys are encouraged to do practical things and girls interpersonal things for example? Should we return to the patterns of behaviour more typical of earlier societies in which women stayed at home and men worked? I suspect the answer from most of us would be a resounding ‘no’ yet we are in danger of sleep-walking back to precisely this situation. If from an early age boys and girls are channelled towards certain interests it is a waste of human resources as one half of the population is dissuaded from being an engineer, for example, and the other half from being a nurse.

Clothes telling toddlers that they love shopping or are beautiful or that they want to be a WAG when they grow up create a particular mindset as do make-up sets for three-year olds. It should come as no surprise then that growing numbers of girls are dissatisfied with their appearance and ready to go to increasingly extreme lengths in order to be attractive if they are growing up learning that their primary value derives from the way they look. 

Moreover, the definition of ‘attractiveness’ is an increasingly narrow one as our society moves relentlessly forward in its rejection of difference.

Whilst single sex schools cannot single-handedly defeat the increasingly rigid gender rules now so wide-spread, I believe that they do offer a ray of hope in a relentlessly pink and blue world. They offer the ideal opportunity to examine the tyranny of gender-stereotyping and to encourage boys and girls to choose who they want to be. They do not fall into the trap of ascribing differences in learning style or behaviour to gender differences; they allow girls and boys to see that we are all different and differently talented regardless of our gender.

Proof of this is that at girls’ schools more girls opt for stereotypically male subjects such as chemistry, physics or maths and the same has been observed of at boys’ schools with subjects such as languages, drama and art.

Jane Gandee

Headmistress

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