In recent studies with 3 to 6 year olds, when asked what was most important to them, 44% of girls said being pretty; 1 in 8 boys said being tough.
From the age of 6, children associated traits like “intelligence” with being a boy, and traits like “niceness” with being a girl.
Where do these differing, and limiting, gender expectations come from?
By the age of 6, a child’s view of the world, and their place in it, starts to crystallise… what have they absorbed by then? They are already being told by society, based on their gender, that there are set things like should like, certain ways they should dress, how they should behave and ultimately, what they can aspire to.
When asked, 74% of parents recognised that boys and girls were treated differently and that it had a negative impact.
The social pressure on girls to be a certain kind of pretty and a certain kind of body-type creates unattainable standards and teenagers with low self-esteem. It has been linked with a rise in eating disorders as well as a sharp rise in young girls self-harming over the last 5 years.
The emphasis on girls to be kind and amenable, creates women that won’t speak up for fear of being seen as “pushy” or difficult, which helps compounds the huge gender pay gap.
For boys these social pressures are no less damaging. The expectation for is for them to be tough… to be funny... to be able to take “banter”, no matter how upsetting… to be sexually active. We are creating boys that prioritise “keeping face” over being open about their feelings and reaching out when they’re suffering. Many studies link these social pressures to high male suicide rates; it is still the biggest killer of men under 45 and 3 times higher than that for women. Studies have also found that men who hold strong beliefs about gender stereotypes are much more likely to become perpetrators of violence against women.
It’s clear that something needs to change…
Big brands like Lego are starting to change their product strategy to remove gender stereotypes from their toys. The brand commissioned a global survey on the subject and found that 71% of boys surveyed feared they would be made fun of if they played with “girls toys”. Unisex products allow the child to make the choice rather than the brand and marketeers.
For me, unisex has always been a political issue. Why would we want to pigeon-hole our children when they are only starting to discover who they are. We should be allowing to dream that everything is open for them to explore and anything is possible. For me, it’s about giving kids the freedom to make their own choices and express themselves; freedom to be whatever they want to be.
The Children's Society
The Fawcett Society