Shaking off gender stereotypes your way

Parent holds child on his shoulders while standing in daylight on a beach. There is water and sand in the background.

Unconsciously, most of us are taught throughout life how to ‘be’ our gender – and the rules can seem like they’re set in stone.

The social norms and structures that surround us all are bigger and more powerful than we are. They tell us what’s allowed, what’s not and who we can and can’t be, all based on our gender.

Different school uniforms for boys and girls, for example, teach us how to look, and even what activities are and aren’t for our gender (ever tried playing rugby in a skirt?!).

From who can access parental leave, to the way superannuation is accrued, these same structures affect us throughout life according to our gender, starting from birth.

However, even when we understand the impact of gender stereotypes limiting our children, challenging them as parents can seem impossible. We want our children to have equal access to opportunities but…

We worry children who don’t fit the stereotype, for example, a son doing ballet or a daughter wanting to cut her hair short might get teased by other children or find it harder to make friends.

We fear the judgements and expectations of our own friends, family and community, for example that argument with the in-laws, or awkwardness with other parents.

Despite these challenges, there are ways we can confidently make change and support our children.

Once we’re seeing the stereotypes around us we can choose responses that work for us and our family. We can encourage and support our children to make their own choices, and give them the knowledge and language to act confidently.

Whether it’s speaking up publicly, making change more ‘privately’ in our own families, or watching and listening for ways to take action, there are plenty of opportunities to make improvements.

Here are some things you can try at home:

  • Create a list of games, activities, jobs (or even haircuts!) and ask kids if they feel like they’re ‘for boys, girls or everyone?’ Discuss this: ‘It’s true, lots of what we see and hear tells us that, but...’ and give other examples that tell a different story, show images of men with long hair, for example or women playing football.
  • When you hear a child make a statement about gender, like 'Boys are dumb' or 'Girls are weak', for example, use it to start a conversation with your kids and challenge the idea.
  • Ask your children who does what jobs in your home, for example, ‘Who keeps our house clean?’, ‘Who fixes things in our house?’ or ‘Who does the driving when we all go out?’. Are there any patterns? Do the responses make you want to try anything differently?
  • Are there things you’d like your children to see you or your partner do more often? For example, more nurturing, more physical play, more artistic or more practical activities?

Use the responses and conversations from above to inspire action – for example, swap jobs around the house with your partner. Who normally plays ball, and who usually does colouring in or puzzles with the kids?

There are no hard and fast rules about how to manage gender in a family. It's about figuring out what action your family is ready to take.