Pink & blue? Don't put kids in a 'gender-straitjacket'
A new study shows that by the age of 10, most children have been ‘gender-straitjacketed’. Early intervention, say experts, can prevent them from being boxed into stereotypes
When girls hit puberty, their world shrinks. So says Dr Robert Blum, director of the global early adolescent study led by Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organisation.
"People change their perception of girls," says Blum. "They stop being human beings and start being sexual beings. They are told: you can't go out; cover up; you are going to get into trouble; you can't sit that way; you can't wear that."
The study surveyed preteens from 15 countries, including South Africa, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria.
"When we started this work in 2011 there was really no research on 10- to-14-year-olds," says Blum. "People asked: 'Why are you looking for commonalities? Kids growing up in America have nothing in common with kids in China or Ecuador.' That is not true. The messages that young boys and girls get are remarkably and disturbingly similar."
Blum and his colleagues did not expect the pre-adolescents in the study to have been exposed to gender discrimination and violence.
"We were absolutely wrong," he says. "From four years old they get these messages and by early adolescence they have become internalised and solidified."
The study indicates that by 10 most children, rich or poor, have been "gender-straitjacketed" into believing boys are strong and girls vulnerable.
"Everywhere we looked there was this hegemonic myth: males are strong, females are weak," says Blum. He advocates early intervention to prevent children being boxed in, but from infancy, toys, TV, adverts and social media promote gender roles.PROGRAMMED TO BEHAVE
South Africa is taking part in the study, with the University of the Western Cape's faculties of education, and community and health sciences spearheading the surveys in schools.Professor Diane Cooper of UWC's School of Public Health says they will begin the next phase in 2018, after a pilot study this year.
Professor Floretta Boonzaier of the University of Cape Town'spsychology department says girls and boys are explicitly and implicitly programmed to behave a certain way from a young age.
"We have to push back against that and retrain them to challenge conventions."
Around the world, girls and boys who step over gender lines risk shaming and beating.
Except for Edinburgh in Scotland, the study's results show that, universally, boys are expected to initiate romantic relationships.
A 14-year-old participant in the Cape Town project said: "If girls take the lead they are referred to as desperate by other girls."
This girl, however, is exceptional, not conforming to the gender stereotype of how she should look, express emotion or behave.
She was among a group who stood up to a teacher who told them that "feminism is harming society and women should be at home teaching their children".
Sonke Gender Justice has a children's rights and positive parenting unit. Thulani Velebayi runs programmes in communities.
"When we put toys on the ground, most boys pick up the toy guns and girls the soft toys and dolls. When boys grow up, they use real guns and abuse women.
"Teaching boys to not express emotion is damaging," he says.Psychologist Liane Lurie says: "When we look at displays of anger or frustration, there is still a generalised expectation that boys will be physically aggressive while girls will be in a flurry of tears."
Psychologist Tyrone Edgar says: "I also tend to see, in both younger and older teens, a tendency to respond to emotions in gendered ways. For instance, 'boys don't get sad' and 'girls don't get angry'."
This can trigger toxic emotions and symptoms down the line, like generalised anxiety or depression, he says.
On a global front, emotions are just as troublesome. Blum says boys are told that they are "trouble", and tend to act this out when older."They are told they can't control themselves and they are not responsible for their behaviour. There is no biological basis for this.
"These are socially learned woes, but they get played out as if absolute realities, so now we have huge issues of gender-based violence, aggression and interpersonal violence," he says.
"No one benefits from gender stereotypes," says Blum, warning that these can cause risks. Some harmful stereotypes dictate that girls are more likely to leave school earlier, get HIV and be abused; boys are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol and drugs, be violent and get murdered.
But positive role models can revolutionise the way children see gender roles.
Velebayi says he shares the domestic work of cooking and caring for the children, like bathing them.
"I have two daughters and a son. My boy is three but he knows it is his duty to put away toys and take his used dish to the sink."
The original geeks in the 1940s were women mathematicians. They wrote most of the programs for the first computers. "Until the 1970s, female students of computer science outnumbered men," said US historian Brenda Frink.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper of the US Navy was a pioneer of computer programming. COBOL, an early high-level programming language still in use today, was inspired by her belief in a machine-independent programming language based on English words. "Women are naturals at computer programming," Hopper told Cosmopolitan in 1967. She compared computer science to planning a dinner: "You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it's ready when you need it."
• 'It Begins at Ten: How Gender Expectations Shape Early Adolescence Around the World', a study led by Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organisation, is published in the October Journal of Adolescent Health..