92% of parents believe that boys and girls should be treated equally1. But despite our best intentions, our world can expect certain things of them, because of their gender.
Gender stereotypes set expectations of children’s behaviour, interests and create assumptions of how we relate to children, even from before they are born. These expectations can affect what we share with them, the skills and knowledge they’ll learn, the activities we encourage and even the way we communicate with kids.
As children grow, gender stereotypes can influence and limit their choices. Stereotypes might mean kids feel less comfortable engaging with certain activities. This affects the skills they develop and the knowledge they acquire, the way they represent themselves, the ways they act and react to certain situations. Ultimately, it affects the roles they take in society as adults.
Gender stereotypes have a cost – for all children
Think about the little boy who's told – by other children or even family – to forget about his favourite toy because it's from the girls' aisle in the toy shop. Or the little girl who loves playing football but is discouraged by people around her because it's 'a rough sport, more for boys'.
Beyond individual stories, gender stereotypes reinforce inequality and issues for women and girls, men and boys, and typically result in women and girls facing greater disadvantage.
The same gender stereotypes that limit us as children go on to inform and shape us as adults, and feed into a society in which disrespect, inequality and violence against women is more likely.
Parents are powerful
While we can’t individually change all the structural or ‘bigger picture’ inequities, we, as parents, do have a powerful opportunity to make change within our own families. We can start by seeing the individual skills and talents our kids have, and encouraging as many different cognitive, physical, social and emotional abilities as we can – and ask our friends and family to chip in and teach them ones that we can’t – it will have a positive impact on all of us.
Consider the following questions and chat about them with your family
Read on to find out more about gender stereotypes or how you can take small steps forward or respond to every day challenges.
- Children don’t get to learn and practice skills that don’t 'fit' the stereotype for their gender. For example, while some parents happily encourage girls to play with 'boys' toys', far fewer are comfortable with boys playing with 'girls' toys'. When we make these decisions as parents we are inadvertently determining what opportunities our daughters, or our sons, think are available to them as a girl or a boy.
- Children miss out on learning how to fully express all their emotions. For example, girls are often taught how to process sadness, but not anger, while boys might be taught how to restrain their anger but not how to process sadness. Girls are more often discouraged from yelling, while boys are more often discouraged from crying.
- Children don’t have skills and talents recognised if they aren't what we expect from the stereotype. For example, when we believe boys are naturally 'rough', we are more likely to notice and react to 'rough play', and less likely to notice and react when our boys are playing gently.
- What did people notice or compliment you on as a child and what characteristics were the focus of these remarks, for example, clever, bossy, cute, shy?
- Can you remember a situation from your childhood which involved other children or adults stopping or discouraging you from certain things because of your gender? What did you miss out on?