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SATURDAY SOAPBOX

Where are the dinosaur onesies for girls?

Stereotypes snuff out options and ambitions for our children from the day they're born
Saturday, March 11, 2017 - 05:50

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The challenge with stereotypes is that they are often internalised in people and society, and so it is hard to identify and detect when those biases are at work.

I DON'T understand why there are girls' stuff and boys' stuff.

I don't see why clothes for girls must involve some shade of pink or purple, and why clothes for boys freely employ every other colour on the visible spectrum. Why do girls get just two out of an infinite number of colours?

I don't see why there are books called Illustrated Stories For Girls and Illustrated Stories For Boys. Why can't stories be for everybody?

I don't see why my daughter's primary school's co-curricular programmes offer more sports options for boys than girls. Why can't girls play football, too?

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I don't see why a boy would be surprised that my daughter does "all the boy stuff" like robotics, taekwondo and basketball. Why can't everyone have fun together?

Well, actually I know why these things occur, but I just can't accept that they are right.

International Women's Day has raised vigorous discussion about gender equality, and these discussions invariably invite doubts about whether there is discrimination in the first place.

Yes. Yes, there is. It's just hard to notice because it starts from Day One, and it is pervasive throughout life, and it affects both women and men, and it has a name: stereotypes.

The most insidious form of discrimination is casual stereotyping, and there are few biases as socially accepted as gender stereotypes.

Just go to any place that sells children's clothes. It is infuriatingly hard to find something for a girl that does not contain the dreaded pink or purple. When my first daughter was born, my wife and I warned the grandparents not to buy clothes of those colours for their granddaughter in a futile attempt to balance out the palette in her wardrobe. What a monumental failure that turned out to be.

Profit-driven businesses do not have a monopoly on these stereotypes either. Grown-ups, including parents, grandparents and teachers, help to perpetuate these biases as well. It can be as simple as a throwaway comment like "girls shouldn't behave this way" or "boys don't play with these toys".

It might be tempting to argue that girls are naturally like that, and businesses are just responding to demand.

No! That's marketing nonsense, and we must not be fooled. Girls are perfectly equipped to become paleontologists when they grow up - just consider the famed English fossil hunter Mary Anning in the 19th century. Where are all the dinosaur onesies for girls? Mary Barra heads automaker General Motors. Where are the toy cars for girls?

I am not arguing that girls do not have some inherent differences from boys, or that all girls like dinosaurs and cars, or that boys do not suffer from these stereotypes as well.

What I am saying is that it is extremely difficult to break free from the stereotypes that surround us, and unless we fight back against these generalisations, stereotypes snuff out options and ambitions for our children from the day they were born until the day they die.

A boy who may have the talent to become the greatest ballet dancer in history may never fulfil that potential because dancing is too "girly". A girl who could have become the Messi of women's football may never win a trophy because she never got a chance to try kicking a ball in school.

And yes, it's true that very good male ballet dancers and very good women's football players exist, but the fact is that many of them had to jump through extra hoops just to get a shot that was so much easier to obtain for someone of the opposite sex.

Diversity and equality in the workplace is the debate that grown-ups like to have when it comes to gender issues. And discussions about solutions tend to be very mechanics-focused - set a target or a quota, incentivise meeting that target or penalise missing it.

But those mechanisms only treat the symptoms, and not the underlying cause. You could set a quota for boardroom diversity, but people are going to perceive that as unfair treatment, simply because there is no recognition that there was an unfair playing field to begin with.

The problem goes deeper. The challenge with stereotypes is that they are often internalised in people and society, and so it is hard to identify and detect when those biases are at work.

So if we want to improve gender issues, maybe start from the inside.

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