Gender is very much an ingrained concept in human society. From the moment children are born, they are assigned a gender, and then told about it and expected to live according to the stereotypes of that gender for the rest of their lives. For the majority, it may not be a problem. However, more people are questioning the gender divide these days. Is it really necessary to keep to the traditional boy and girl without question, or is it worth opening children up to gender diversity early on? Should we, as a society, continue to reinforce the strict gender roles or should we strive to be more open-minded?
Some people who oppose the study of gender believe that gender studies concern only women’s issues. After all, men have hardly gotten the short end of the stick throughout history, whereas women have faced plenty of discrimination by dint of their gender. To oppose the inequality, a new group of activists rose up, called the feminists. The term quickly became controversial and was associated with brutal women who wanted to overthrow men and destroy social structures. People would argue that the world has known these social constructs for so long, so why should this era be any different? Why would these feminists seek to undermine millennia of tradition for a strange, avant-garde cause?
In reality, gender studies concern people of all genders, as it is the study of how gender interacts with every aspect of our lives – be it the clothes we wear, the languages we speak, the subjects we study, the jobs we work as, the way we eat, our hobbies, and everything else. Conventional gender roles express a clear separation between men and women, with favour for the men. Men are seen as the strong gender, the ones who work and provide food for the family, and the ones who lead others. They are taught not to show any emotions. On the other hand, women are seen as housewives, caretakers, nurses and babysitters. They are expected to express their emotions freely and be empathetic to others. In a traditionally male-dominated workforce, even after women started working, men still earned more than women, a disparity that is present even today. Subconscious biases are ever-present in our minds, including the possibility of favouring a man over a woman for a stereotypically “male” job, for no other reason than his gender. Men may be discouraged from pursuing stereotypically feminine professions, such as nursing, dancing, cooking or humanities, while women may be discouraged from pursuing stereotypically masculine professions, such as engineering, mathematics, science or sports. Gendered concepts are everywhere in the world around us. Strangely enough, although gender is very much a part of our everyday lives, many people feel uncomfortable discussing it, much less teaching children about it.
However, one cannot argue that gender concerns even children. Studies have shown that children identify their gender from an early age. As babies, they have no preference over what kinds of toys they play with or the clothes they wear. However, as they grow up and learn about the gender distinctions between boys and girls, they start to gravitate toward stereotypical behaviours of their identified gender. In particular, children between the ages of three to five tend to strive to act their gender out strongly, perhaps to emulate the adults around them or their idols. These young children tend to believe that stereotypes make people have genders. In a study conducted by Sandra Bem, three to five-year-old children were presented with three sets of photographs of two toddlers, male and female. The first set of photographs showed the toddlers nude, the second set showed them dressed in gender-typical clothing, and the third showed them dressed in clothing typical of the other gender. When asked whether the toddlers were boys or girls, the children thought that once the toddlers switched their clothing, they also switched genders – despite still looking at the first set of nude photographs. In other words, the children believed that the male toddler wearing girl’s clothing was a girl, and the female toddler wearing boy’s clothing was a boy.
It is not until a later age, around seven to ten, that children begin to understand that gender is stable. As they grow older and realize that gendered constructs are more or less set in stone, they will likely begin to care less about acting so stereotypically. This is also around when both boys and girls may admit that they enjoy engaging in stereotypical activities of another gender, and they may begin to interact with peers of another gender. Still, children may express more inhibitions than when they were younger, for fear that they may be questioned if they do not act masculine or feminine enough.
By the time of adolescence and adulthood, children have internalized the gender roles in their society. They believe that boys are meant to be brave while girls are meant to be protected. Over time, this can escalate into potential risks, especially if boys feel uninhibited and act too aggressively, or if girls believe that society expects them to be submissive and obedient. In either case, unhealthy behaviours are reinforced and severely limit the outlook for either gender.
As such, the evidence seems to suggest that children start out life being blind to gender until they are told about it. Given their open-mindedness, it appears to be beneficial to start children on gender studies at a young age, before they are exposed to society’s solid gender constructs. Children are more likely to pick up gender studies easier when they are younger, rather than as adults with a lifetime of tradition that can be difficult to break down. Ultimately, teaching children gender studies from childhood helps them to be more accepting of minorities and to treat everyone equally. Instead of being confined to society’s expectations of their gender, is it not better to allow children to freely explore their interests? In fact, teaching children about gender studies can actually help to protect them early on. Reassuring children that they do not have to conform to society’s expectations of their gender reduces the likelihood that boys will engage in risk-seeking activities such as smoking, gambling or drug abuse, or that girls will feel self-conscious about their bodies and develop self-image issues.
The thoughts of children may seem immature to us, but as far as progressive society is concerned, children are actually well ahead of their time. Perhaps children are the real experts on gender studies. Might it be that the “grown-up” social constructs of adults are actually regressing children’s fluid and accepting beliefs about gender?