No, refusing to share sex of your child does not help tackle gender bias – it only makes it worse

Every time we tell a little girl she’s pretty and a little boy he’s clever, we need to consider our actions. How can we watch our language if it’s already done for us?

Clemmie Millbank
Thursday 19 September 2019 08:42
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“What’s their name?” It’s the single most common – and most infuriating – question every new parent is asked. It’s considered the polite way to ask the sex of the baby, and avoid “‘offending” the besotted new mum or dad by getting it wrong. Many parents try to avoid this pantomime by offering up signals in the form of pink or blue clothing. But why do we still feel the need in 2019, to make the message so clear?

Yesterday, Jake England-Johns and Hobbit Humphrey appeared BBC One’s Inside Out programme to discuss their decision to keep their baby’s gender a secret, to allow their child to “be themselves” and keep them free from “the gender bias that society places on children”.

The couple have chosen a gender-neutral name, they use the pronoun “they” and even the child’s grandmother didn’t know the sex of the baby until they were 11 months old (although maybe if granny had offered to change a nappy before then, she might’ve found out a bit earlier).

As a parent of a 17-month-old boy, I think Jake and Hobbit’s decision is extreme, but I can understand where it comes from. From the moment you find out the sex of a baby (which, for us, was our 20-week scan) the way people talk about your child, the toys and clothes they buy them, and their expectations around their personality subtly change.

When we announced we were having a boy, we received a flurry of blue and grey toys and clothes patterned with dinosaurs, robots and various forms of transport. Even the “gender-neutral” animal patterns aren’t as neutral as they first appear; the stronger animals (crocodiles, lions and bears) are mainly reserved for boys and the cuddlier ones (rabbits, rabbits and more rabbits) for girls.

It’s not just the older generations who are guilty of this typecasting. Many of my free-thinking, millennial friends will stick to gender norms. Even more considered items, such as a the popular feminist storybooks are, ironically, bought only for young girls.

As my son got older, things became noticeably more polarised as people began to comment on his behaviour. When he’s naughty it’s usually characterised as “cheeky” and if he strikes out, he’s told off – but often with a slight boys-will-be-boys shrug. When he cries, rather than being cuddled, I’ve noticed other adults grow impatient. And I was horrified when a friend’s husband said the actual words “don’t be a wuss” to his own 15-month-old after he fell and bumped his head.

In an era of toxic masculinity and #MeToo, parents could be a little more aware than this. So aren’t England-Johns and Humphreys onto something here?

Actually, no. Although I applaud the couple for raising the discussion, forcing us to question the gender bias that surrounds children, not revealing your child’s gender ultimately may do more harm than good. Although their decision serves their own child, it also firmly reinforces the fact that society has an issue with gender bias. It accepts it and doesn’t challenge us to change our behaviour, but instead denies us the ability to do so. Instead, they’ve done it for us.

Every time we tell a little girl she’s pretty and a little boy he’s clever, we need to stop ourselves and consider our actions. The only way to tackle gender bias is by confronting it head on, not by hiding it.

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