The gender gap: Messages that can affect the way boys and girls grow up

Why do we still treat sons and daughters so differently? Kate Hilpern looks at how preconceived notions can have serious and long-lasting consequences

Thursday 21 October 2010 00:00 BST

"Brilliant: now I know what to get Thomas for Christmas," a friend said recently. At first, I thought she was joking. Her two-year-old son had just been trying on my daughter's beads. "Why not?," she said upon seeing my face. I hung my head in shame. I'm a feminist, yet I realised I've fallen into the "gender trap". I've never thought anything of my young son playing with kitchens or dolls, but this more extreme example of a boy enjoying something aimed at girls revealed a way of thinking that recently has started creeping into my psyche that I'm not proud of. That is, defining boys and girls, including my own son and daughter, in terms of difference. I mean, of course they're different. All children are different. But not necessarily because of gender.

A new study from Netmums reveals that 88 per cent of mums admitted that they treated their sons and daughters differently despite thinking that this was wrong. Most worrying of all, mothers are twice as likely to admit to being more critical of their daughters than their sons. The 2,500-strong survey by the parenting website discovered that mums "type" their children according to gender, with boys seen as "funny", "cheeky", "playful" and "loving" – the perfect child – while girls are viewed as "stroppy", "argumentative", "eager to please" and "serious". These perceptions hold true even for mums who only have daughters, according to the study, while one in five of those who do have sons admit to letting them get away with more – in short, turning a blind eye to behaviour in boys for which they would reprimand girls.

There are long-lasting and serious repercussions, cautions Crissy Duff, psychotherapeutic counsellor and Netmums parent supporter. "Women in particular seem to carry the feelings of parental disapproval and negative 'typing' into adulthood. This could be why many women are far more self-critical than men, who often have a more relaxed attitude when it comes to making mistakes and moving past them."

Boys are affected, too. "They often grow up thinking, for example, that they somehow deserve more freedom than women, who need 'looking after'," says Duff. It's a wake-up call to parents, she says, to help break these gender cycles and even out the differences in how the sexes behave and think about themselves.

From the moment children are born, and often before, says Duff, they are bombarded with gender-related messages. "Toys, clothes, even wrapping paper and cups and spoons – all these things, as well as things such as seeing dad take out the rubbish while mum loads the dishwasher, feed into what they think is expected of them. You often hear people say boys are hardwired to go for action toys, and rough and tumble, but actually, even from babies, boys are bounced in the air and tickled, while baby girls are stroked and spoken to in whispers. So is it any wonder? The result of treating them not as individuals but 'gender halves' is that we teach them limitations. Girls can be brilliant at football and boys can love dancing, for instance, but they learn they shouldn't even try these things."

Giving our children messages such as "girls are nurturing" and "boys are science-orientated" can affect career choices too, adds Dr Malcolm Cross, psychologist at City University London. Yes, there are more women in engineering and more men in the caring professions than in the past, he admits, but there's still a huge gender imbalance, not to mention a 27 per cent gender pay gap for the over-40s. "I was in Russia recently where plastering is seen as a female career," he says. "Even I was shocked. The idea of 20 women plastering a building in the UK would make you wonder if it was some kind of movement, but over there, there's a belief that the attention to detail required for the job makes it better suited to women. It just goes to show the arbitrariness of the links we make between careers and gender."

But parents should not beat themselves up, insists Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, who believes it's practically impossible not to get caught up in the "gender trap". She says: "Although we have the strong sense that our perception of others is objective, it's very difficult not to perceive others through the 'lens of gender'. In one recent study, mothers of 11-month-old infants were shown an adjustable sloping walkway and asked to estimate what steepness of slope their baby could manage and would attempt. Girls and boys were identical in both crawling ability and risk-taking, but mothers underestimated girls and overestimated boys, both in crawling ability and crawling attempts. This is the boys as 'bad-but-bold', and girls as 'wonderful-but-weak' stereotype at work."

Another study asked people to judge the heights of men and women shown in photographs. Even though the men and women pairs were identical in height, volunteers judged all the men as significantly taller than the women. "They continued to do so even when the researchers stressed to them that the men and women were equal in height overall, and even when they offered a $50 [£31] cash prize for the most accurate estimates," says Fine. "What this shows is that the gender stereotype that men are taller than women on average (in this instance, perfectly true) unconsciously influences perception even when we try very hard not to let it."

Largely to blame, she believes, is a marketing onslaught on children, the like of which has never before been seen, and which continually and successfully segments the child market by gender. "And second, many popular books written for parents claim that science has now shown what we all suspected all along – namely that boys and girls are 'hardwired' to prefer different kinds of toys and activities."

Upon having her own children, Fine looked up the studies named as evidence in some of these books and was shocked to discover that the neuroscientific data was, she claims, being misrepresented. The reality, she says, is that, in one recent study of children's play behaviour, girls spent twice as long playing with "boy toys" as they did with "girl toys". Moreover, despite parents consistently describing their boys' behaviour as "testosterone-fuelled", Fine points out that in humans there is no clear causal relationship between testosterone and aggressive behaviour.

Fed up with feeling as though we're actually going backwards (even children's globes are sold in pink and blue) Abi Moore launched an anti-pink (or more precisely, a pro-some-alternatives-to-pink) campaign in 2007 with her twin sister, Emma. They had been struck by how different their houses were looking – Abi has two boys, and Emma has two girls. Having since received funding for their work, the campaign has taken off in a big way. "We are not scientists or academics. We just want to put a stop to things like branded hairdryers and heels for little girls, all of which perpetuates stereotypes – not just in girls, but boys. I don't want my sons thinking that Paris Hilton is what girls should aspire to, and I don't want my nieces growing up to become one of the fast growing number of teenagers longing to have, or actually having, breast enlargements."

Angela McRobbie, cultural theorist and author of The Aftermath of Feminism, believes the root of the problem is that so many of today's mums think of feminism as uncool – "that it's no longer relevant and that it's associated with the boring tediousness of political correctness". She adds: "Because they don't want to be associated with it, they have become fearful of speaking out about the return of gender inequalities. What consumer culture has done is come along and exploit that, so that today's non-feminine little girls are penalised."

Add to this our culture's obsession with the body beautiful and perfectionism, and you start to get an insight into why so many girls are growing up with eating disorders, and why boys are in danger of starting to see females in outdated stereotypical ways. "It's very disappointing to feminists of my generation that we feel we have to say the same messages all over again, albeit in a different context," she says.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that, back in 1918, one of America's most respected magazines, the Ladies' Home Journal, wrote that the generally accepted rule was pink for boys, and blue for girls.

'With table manners, I let Luke get away with more'

Sarah Weir lives in Kent with her husband, Richard, and their children – Luke, 10, Sophie, four, and Abigail, four months

"From the start, Sophie was more independent, stroppy and argumentative than Luke. She'd refuse to get into her car seat, for instance, whereas Luke just did it. Getting dressed is a nightmare for her, too: she has to decide what to wear and she changes her mind several times, whereas Luke has always just got dressed, no problem.

Luke, on the other hand, is far more physical than Sophie. From when he was tiny, he wanted pots and pans to bash about, while Sophie – who can be a bit of a tomboy – is also very into dolls and trying to put my make-up on. Friends note the same differences with their sons and daughters. So yes, I think boys and girls are naturally different, and, as a result, I suppose I treat them differently, although that's not a conscious decision.

I worry less about Luke, because I think of boys as tougher. He came home recently from rugby, saying someone had stood on his head. I thought: 'Well, you're a boy, you can handle it.' But when Sophie had an accident in nursery where she cut her face, I thought, 'Oh, I hope it doesn't scar.'

I try not to criticise Sophie more than Luke because I obviously love them equally, but I think I do. With table manners, for example, I let him get away with more. I'm also guilty of using terms like 'funny' and 'cheeky' for Luke, and 'argumentative' and 'serious' for Sophie. But life is harder for a woman – they have to look their best and work harder to get somewhere. Maybe subconsciously, I'm trying to prepare her for what I know lies ahead."

'Girls are more vulnerable - all the more reason to make my daughter feel empowered'

Christine Campbell lives near Cambridge with her husband, Iain, and their children – Charlotte, two, and Emily, three months

"Since having Charlotte, I've been struck by how today's world, through the eyes of a child, is pink or blue. Recently, we went to buy Charlotte a cash register and discovered they come in pink or blue. It's ridiculous. Needless to say, she chose pink – but even she said that's because her friends have. Not one part of me thinks it's inbuilt.

Another shock has been noticing how other parents call it 'rough and tumble' when boys misbehave, but tell off their daughters for being 'nasty' when they do the same thing. There's this feeling that boys and girls should behave very differently: you see it in playgroups. I just think of them as toddlers, and they don't really behave differently.

Our family has mathematicians and engineers, so my daughters have good role models. I'm a maths teacher, and I've seen loads of girls coming into the school already disillusioned with maths because of the gendered messages they get.

I've never referred to my daughters as princesses and would tend towards words like 'cute' and 'cheeky' rather than 'pretty' or 'beautiful'.

My friends tease me. They know I encourage Charlotte to play with Lego and train sets, and if they see her playing with a doll, they gasp: 'Oh you're letting her, then?' But it's about a balance: I'm trying not to go too far the other way, although, possibly, I do sometimes.

I do think girls are more vulnerable in our society, but all the more reason for me to make my daughters feel empowered by treating them the same as I would boys."

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