A gender free environment

Now that I am getting that bit older, quite a few of my friends now have children. Whenever I have to buy presents for the girls, I have my customary moan about how rubbish toys are for girls, compared to those for boys. (Remember if you will that I was always a tomboy. I never played with dolls. I always wanted a gun and a cowboy hat so maybe I’m an extreme judge.) It is not just my personal dislike of pink and cute dolls though, it is the implications of these toys. Boys get to discover science, other worlds, girls get to wait for their prince to come. They get to cook and iron. It all seems a little unfair.

I have now finished reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine and the final chapters looked at the effect the environment that children grow up in has on them. It also suggested how quickly children learn what is perceived as right and wrong for each gender. And how subtle their senses are. All very disturbing.

Most of my friends thought that they would try to bring their children up in a gender free environment. And they all made some concessions to this. No pink, perhaps. Neutral toys. Similarly, when I bought presents, I made sure to buy science or practical toys for the girls, for example. It wasn’t surprising that many of our efforts resolved around toys and clothes. After all, they are the most obvious signifiers of gender around. Pretty simple stuff, I suppose. And then when their little girls decided they wanted pink anyway (interestingly this does seem to apply more to girls than boys) parents started to question the social basis of gender and look towards genetics and biology.

And I was tempted to agree. Now, after reading Delusions of Gender, I realise exactly how small our efforts were. Fine writes of one family who changed all of the pictures in their childrens picture books so that they were of the opposite gender. That certainly made our efforts seem quite small by comparison.

One parent told a story of buying her daughter tools but seeing her look after them, wrap them in blankets, as if they were dolls. This was taken as biological instinct but Fine asked the question of who was the primary caretaker, who put the child to bed? Could it be that her daughter had simply learned the clues as to what she should do with her toys from what her mother did? Interestingly, Fine’s own sons played like this with their trucks and their father was the primary caregiver.

Children see gender everywhere. Fine talks of the number of pre-school books that still have gendered images, women in aprons and as primary caretakers, for example. And then there is the influence of other children. Children want to fit in with their peers. Children are more likely to make gendered toy choices in the presence of their peers then at home. Finally, there are other families. Even if your family has a stay at home father, your child will very quickly understand that this is unusual.

So we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that biology is the only thing so all encompassing as to be able to override our attempts at non gendered environments. After finishing this book two things were clear to me. One, our attempts at gender neutrality were too small to even matter, two, social factors were easily as large and all-consuming as biological ones. If, in the future, I have a family of my own, I now realise that I would have to go a lot further than a no-pink household in order to create a gender neutral environment.

Typical Girls Don’t Rebel*

(From The Slits song Typical Girl)

I think it is probably because I have always been quite tomboyish that I have always been suspicious of the idea that gender might be hardwired in some way. I’ve always been more into the idea of gender as something that you do, something that you acquire or learn, rather than something that you have or are born with. As Judith Butler suggests ‘Gender is a kind of persistent imitation that passes as the real.’ It’s a role we all play. And, of course, it always seems that this hardwiring just happens to support traditional gender roles. How very handy.

As part of my research for Choose Your Future I have been looking into this idea. Are men really incapable of reading emotions or do we just not encourage them to learn? Are women really no good at reading maps or does the social belief that they are stop them from even thinking that they are. After all, if you are that person who doesn’t fit the stereotype, do you admit it or do you downplay your own ability in order to fit in.

It is surely far too difficult to separate nature and nurture. One of the first things that children pick up is what is expected from their gender. Parents are also so very concerned with their child fitting in. Even now, my mother expresses dismay at my fashion choices and tries to encourage me into things that she thinks are more feminine. As well as pointing out babies to me in the hope that I’ll find them so cute I won’t be able to resist my urge to get pregnant.

At the minute, I’m reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. It could not be a more apt title. The relationship between the social and biological is extremely complicated and who can say which came first. Does our brain effect how we behave socially or does society effect the way our brain functions? What does the fact that some male brains process emotions in a different place to some female brains really mean? Can we really make judgements about behaviour from looking at which parts of the brain light up? It is not as obvious as you might think.

It certainly does seem true that social factors can effect our perceptions of our own and others’ genders. For example, women given a talk about women who achieve well in maths and science did better on the maths test that followed than women told the opposite. (It goes without saying that the ability of all women was, in actual fact, about the same.) Similarly, women tend to rate their ability at socially unacceptable traits such as being good at maths as being worse than it actually is.

What I think when I hear about research that suggests gender differences are hardwired is what’s in it for them. Why would it be good if these differences were hardwired. And of course, the answer to that is in the title of the blog. Typical girls don’t rebel; they are polite, demure, do the housework, stay in their place. And typical boys keep all the power for themselves.