Confronting gender stereotypes

A WiHTL event for International Women’s Day highlighted the importance of more equal parental role models when it comes to giving girls – and boys – more choice over their futures.

children in care

Cute girls sitting on floor while kindergarten teacher reading book to other children indoors

How do we help our children to counter the male/female stereotypes that surround them and give them a greater choice in how they live their lives?

A panel debate organised by WiHTL for International Women’s Day this week addressed the importance of good role models, both male and female and of gender equality when it comes to parental leave.

Ian Dinwiddy, founder and director of Inspiring Dads, talked about his personal experience of growing up in a house where his mum was diagnosed with MS and there were no gender assumptions about housework and the like. He didn’t really think about it much, however, until he became a dad and stopped work to be a stay at home dad to his two children. Then he looked around him and saw men struggling with their identity and interacting with a parental space which was dominated by women.

He thinks it is vital to support dads better with parental transition and to create spaces where they can talk about the pressures on them and build greater equality at home. They can find it difficult to challenge gender assumptions around childcare, including asking for flexible working, he said. They also need better role models in senior leadership – men who talk openly about being a dad, said Dinwiddy.

Clare Willetts, founder of Not only pink and blue, said she had been working with Daddilife whose recent survey shows 52% of new dads suffer from tension at work due to being a dad in the first year after their child is born. She says it is impossible to address the kind of gender stereotypes children face if we don’t, as parents, role model a more equal sharing of the caring responsibilities. That is why her organisation has been working with employers on its parental leave programme and on promoting flexible working for all. Willetts added that positive role models and building a more parent-friendly culture at work, where leaders can ‘leave loudly’ ie can say they are going home on time to pick up their kids, has an impact on children’s development and confidence.

She said part of the spur for founding Not only pink and blue was that she was seeing lots of positive campaigns for building women’s self esteem at work and yet was aware of research showing girls’ confidence starts to drop from as early as seven.  It seemed to her that trying to instill confidence in women when they start working is like trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. 

She spoke of how almost everything that surrounds children growing up plays to a stereotype and feeds them a certain idea of themselves. For instance, girls’ shoes are flimsy and have no grip so they can’t run around as much or climb trees. The same applies to having to wear skirts at school. She mentioned the message on girls’ clothes, such as ‘I am cute’, and even the typeface used which tends to be less bold than that used for boys. All of this sends out messages to girls – and to boys, she said. “It’s that drip drip effect,” she said, adding that she aims to build parents’ awareness of it and offer more neutral options through her directory. She stated that those messages affect how girls and boys develop. For instance, if toys are filtered due to gender and boys don’t get to play with certain toys like dolls they will not develop certain social skills. 

Abi Wright, co-founder of The Festival of the Girl, agreed that stereotypes need to be challenged early. That is why she set up the Festival of Girls for primary school-aged girls. She had noted that many of the initiatives aimed at countering gender stereotypes, such as STEM programmes for girls, were aimed at teenagers.  Yet research shows that by the age of six girls are already starting to think that boys are more likely than them to do the ‘smart’ subjects’ and that they should be pretty and sweet.

The Festival celebrates the International Day of the Girl in October, which Wright wants to make as important as International Women’s Day.  It aims to encourage girls to try new things and to give them greater choice as well as to support parents facing the ‘overwhelming’ pressure of gender stereotypes pushed at their children.

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