Can We Be Gender Neutral?
What is gender neutrality? Gender neutral parenting, gender neutral teaching, gender neutral shopping. Has it all gone a bit too far with mixed gender neutral changing rooms?
I was asked recently what my opinion is on the subject of gender neutrality in terms of raising children. I had to think about this, like many parents I don’t subscribe to a style of parenting that adheres to a set of rules. We as parents simply learn through trial and error and do what we think is best.
My first thoughts if I’m honest was confusion, girls are girls and boys are boys with occasional exceptions and that’s ok. They like what they like regardless of stereotype. Why confuse matters with yet more labels? I don’t think I had actually thought it through consciously before.
Personally I do think that boys and girls are different, they are physically different and generally behave differently. I have no issue with a boy be referred to as ‘he’ and a girl as ‘she’.
But the discussion made me curious. After having a very short browse of the results when I searched ‘gender neutrality’.
It seems I have in fact been loosely parenting in a way that is described as gender neutral.
I don’t push gender stereotypes, I don’t paint my girls room pink and boys room blue, I didn’t buy pretty frilly dresses for my girl nor will I stop my son from doing gymnastics if he so wishes when he’s older. I don’t utter phrases like that’s for boys or that’s for girls. I’m keen to allow them both as many opportunities as possible regardless of gender stereotype.
At present my children are very young and rely on me to make many decisions for them so yes, I try to keep things reasonably neutral. However as my daughter is 5 she is starting to have an opinion of her own and I do give her a choice when it comes to deciding which clothes we should buy for her or which toys she’d like.
Guess what, most of the time she chooses things are stereotypically ‘for girls’. But she does take interest in science and technology, is that nature or nurture? If my daughter wants to wear a pretty dress though then she can, it does not define her intelligence. I just want to allow my children to be themselves without judgement.
Of course the media plays a big part in how children view themselves with traditional gender stereotypes being portrayed frequently. Though times are changing and many brands are becoming more responsible with adverts. I’m fully on board with advertising that steers clear of this gender stereotyping.
I felt confused. But then realised all I was doing was confusing sex and gender. Sociology A Level classes came flooding back to me. So while sex is determined by our genes, gender is determined by culture and society. But there is clearly a very strong connection between the two and thus easy to see the two as the same.
I can word it differently and say for me this conversation falls into two distinct categories. Identity and opportunities. It is normal and completely ok for girls to identify as a girl and the same for boys.
Identity is really important in growing up and developing social skills. We naturally deviate to people we identify with, whether it’s because of what they are wearing, what they do as a job, a hobby or even biological sex. Children have very little identity, they are growing and developing their identity every day, exploring the world and seeing where they fit in. Sex is just one aspect of their identity and one of the first aspects of themselves they probably understand. It is a fact, we are either a boy or a girl (with some but very few exceptions).
Whilst identifying with your biological sex is completely normal, what isn’t ok are differences in opportunities for boys and girls or judging a persons capabilities because of their sex. All boys and girls should have equal opportunities to do whatever in life it is they want. If my son wants to be a dancer then so be it. If my daughter wants to be a mechanic or an engineer then no problem. But in this same argument, I am not going to discourage my daughter from liking anything that is stereotypically female either. Having painted nails does not define a person. Encouraging neutrality is a collective responsibility. We as society should encourage equality in ability and potential whether they are aged 5 in the classroom or aged 45 in the boardroom.
So in answer to my own question, neutrality is not about defining our sex, it is about abolishing stereotypes based on which sex we are. It’s about society stopping being so damned judgemental. It is about teaching our children to aim for the stars and never let which sex they are stop them from getting there.
I think it’s also easy to confuse the subject of gender neutrality in terms of solutions for the transgender community and how they fit into society without feeling they are at risk. We should be making an effort to be more inclusive, not by taking away choice but giving people choices all being a bit more understanding of other peoples choices.
What do you think?
I loved listening to this TED talk and Reshma Saujani’s opinion on how some of the gender differences originated and how things could be changed for the better.