Education as a Catalyst for Change
The two-part documentary No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender-Free? attempts to tackle the pre-determined inequality between the sexes. Dr Javid Abdelmoneim conducts a gentle social experiment which examines what would happen to a class of British 7-year-olds if they were treated as equals, not as boys and girls.
As soon as the gender of a baby is known, adult behaviours change depending on whether it’s believed to be a boy or girl. This significant piece of information carries a weight of socially-constructed expectations and sexism which follows the child into adulthood. Though considered harmless by many; colours, clothes and adjectives chosen by adults impact the development of a child’s perception of self-identity. The class teacher, Mr Andre, who calls the girls “love” and “darling”, and the boys “fella” and “mate” during lesson time, exemplifies the way girls and boys are treated differently according to their gender. Though a subtle use of language, addressing children as either “darling” or “mate” supports the gender divide.
According to the various scientists and medical professionals which Dr. Abdelmoneim interviews, there is no biological reason why a child’s interests should be pre-determined by their gender. A simple activity which challenged the children’s expectations of female and male professions proved to rejuvenate their beliefs on what they thought they themselves could be. Introducing the class to a female mechanic and male makeup artist revealed the fixed perceptions boys and girls had already formed at the age of seven.
When describing themselves in the documentary, boys used the words “strong” and “clever”, whereas the girls used “pretty” and “ugly”. Rigid stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, in which men repress their sensitivity and women repress their intelligence, highlight the lasting consequences subconscious sexism can generate. If a programme was implemented in schools to ensure children were treated as equals, this may radically change the thought-processes and behaviours of future generations for the better. Why wouldn’t we want boys to express their emotions? Why wouldn’t we want girls to believe in their abilities?
Mr Andre understood the subtle impact of his language choices and was incredibly receptive to Dr Abdelmoneim’s suggestions. The experiment proved to encourage action on behalf of headteacher Caroline Sice, who pledged to keep Lanesend Primary School progressive in its approach towards gender neutral teaching. Simple activities, such as those carried out by Dr Abdelmoneim, could easily be conducted in every primary school across the UK. Nurturing both the practical and academic potential of boys and girls collectively would positively impact the next generation of mindsets and help counteract the inequalities evident in society today.
Of course, it is not just up to schools to enforce gender neutral behaviour towards children. Companies play a huge part in the continuation of gendered ideas through the products they manufacture. Innovating the resources which are directed at children, whether it be the books they read or the clothes they wear, would challenge the set ideas which define what is acceptable for boys and girls. Clothing which doesn’t pigeonhole girls into the role of “princess” or books which do not idealise male characters as heroes, would demonstrate to children that they are not limited by their biology, but by their beliefs. Radical changes in commercial products with innovative learning strategies are the catalysts for challenging these beliefs and disengaging the gender divide.