It’s not that long ago that it was illegal for women to wear trousers. The law in France banning women wearing trousers (without permission from the local police) was officially over-turned in 2013. That was only 8 years ago!
Of course, this hasn’t been enforced for years but it demonstrates how we assume that these rules are a thing of the past. From hairstyles to careers and pockets to sports, if we take a look at the messages we give our children we can see how pervasive these stereotypes still are. While there's more awareness at how we choose our baby names, more and more parents aren't as aware at how gender stereotypes emerge as our children grow.
Parents are worried about gender stereotyping
An increasing number of parents are aware of gender stereotypes and the impact they hace on children. A recent Fawcett Society study found that 60% of parents are worried about gender stereotyping. We often see the limitations that gender stereotypes place on girls’, but we are also starting to acknowledge the limitations they place on boys as well.
Research carried out by Let Toys be Toys looking at toy catalogues found that only 13% of children playing ‘caregiving’ activities were boys. Yet a study by Dr Paola Escudero and researchers from MARCS BabyLab found that five month-old boy babies were more engaged with images of dolls than cars. These findings counter the stereotypes that are often seen as fact and when we look at the way clothes and toys are divided in our shops and online stores it’s easy to see how stereotypes can be reinforced.
It’s around 3 or 4 years old that children start to understand the concept of girls and boys and they learn quickly what this means for them. The short cuts for those (pink or blue, caring or active, quiet or boisterous) fall into place and children absorb how they are ‘supposed’ to act. We only have to look at the slogans on clothing to tell us. The pink tops with ‘cute’, ‘smile’, ‘love’ and the blue tops with ‘adventure’, ‘hero’, ‘boisterous’ are clear for us all to see and that language gets imbued into the colours, in-turn becoming short cuts for those stereotypes – pretty in pink.
The world wasn’t always blue for boys and pink for girls.
Some people will tell you that boys ‘just don’t like pink and dresses’ when in fact the world for boys wasn’t always blue, short hair and trousers. It used to be a world of dresses for both sexes until the turn of 1900’s. There are images of F. D. Roosevelt at 2 years old in a dress with long hair. In 1884 boys and girls wore white dresses until they were around 6. It was practical with easy access to nappies and white could be bleached.
The world changed and, believe it or not, blue became a colour for girls and pink for boys. The view in 1918 was summed up in Ladies Home Journal:
“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
The colours may have been the other way round but the language was the same – ‘delicate’ for girls and ‘strong’ for boys. It’s the language that we use that feeds the stereotypes around the colours, not the colours themselves.
Stereotypes create limitations for our children
One of the main reasons we need to challenge stereotypes is because they create limitations for our children. By age 7, children’s career aspirations appear to be shaped and restricted by gender-specific ideas about certain jobs.
The 'Drawing the Future' study showed that boys overwhelmingly aspired to traditionally male dominated sectors while girls drew more 'nurturing' sectors.
We teach little boys that caring roles are not for them. Dolls are described as ‘girls’ toys, adults often question little boys if they are playing with a push chair. If boys as young as 18 months old are discouraged from playing Daddy, how can we expect them as adults to feel empowered to take a primary role in parenting.
It shows that we have to be mindful of the how we talk to our children, be aware of what they see and hear because if we really want to stop children limiting their own options from a very young age, we need to give them the freedom to play and explore.
Taking an active role in challenging gender stereotypes
As parents we have a lot to think about when we are raising our children. Challenging stereotypes can feel like an additional thing on our to do list. But often we don’t even notice them ourselves and inadvertently reinforce stereotypes even if we don’t intend to.
Recent research by LEGO Group found that parents taking part in the study were “almost five times as likely to encourage girls over boys to engage in dance (81% vs. 19%) and dress-up (83% vs. 17%) activities, and over three times as likely to do the same for cooking/baking (80% vs. 20%).”
The impact of this is clear. By restricting play we narrow skill sets, restrict aspirations and it can affect confidence and mental wellbeing. If we want to create an equal world then we need to start with equal play.
Stereotypes can be unlearnt
There is good news though, we can change this. The brain is malleable so it can un-learn these stereotypes and remove the limitations that they create. As Gina Rippon says in her book ‘The Gendered Brain’:
“We now know that, even in adulthood, our brains are continually being changed, not just by the education we receive, but also by the jobs that we do, the hobbies we have, the sports we play. The brain of a working London taxi driver will be different from that of a trainee and from that of a retired taxi driver.”
The brain is always learning. And for parents that’s incredibly positive, because even though stereotypes are often reinforced in cartoons, fairy tales, books, toys and clothes with a conscious effort we can encourage our children to challenge and question them enabling children to become the individual they want to be.
Maybe we, as parents, will learn a thing or two in the process and together we can grow generations of equals.
My top three tips to challenge stereotypes with your kids
1. Be aware of your language
2. Reinforce that all colours are for all children
3. Try to mix up your toys and play time
Pop to our site for a helpful downloadable sheet with useful information and for more resources and useful organisations take a look at https://www.notonlypinkandblue.com/resources/ and our parental leave programme here - https://www.notonlypinkandblue.com/services/parental-leave-programme/
Find yourself filtering by boy/girl automatically. Then pop over to our directory of brands who have products for all children. You’ll find details of the brands, what they sell and many have a special not only pink and blue discount code for you to use too!