So often in life we see the inequalities between men and women. This is evident through things like the pay gap, slut-shaming, the pink tax, the ratio of men to women in positions of power and the general way women and men are differently perceived in society. Society has the idea that women are the weaker sex, the less capable sex, the submissive sex. The root of the misconception, the sexism, starts at the very beginning, from the day parents bring their child home. From the very start of their lives, males and females are raised and treated drastically different. These differences include punishing and praising male and females for different behaviors, encouraging one sex while discouraging the other, and teaching one sex that something is okay for them, but it is not okay for the other sex. In addition to these differences, the sexism also comes from allowing children to use a gender as an insult. Children are taught that the genders are so different that their cannot be any cross between them, and so insults like “you _____ like a girl” or “that’s too girly” are born. All of these contribute to the idea that the sexes are different in more ways than just physically, and that children must adhere to what is “correct” for their sex. This creates an environment in which one gender (male) is considered “better” and the other gender (female) is put down. This article will explore the ways we facilitate sexism in young children, and the effects it has on them when they grow older.
There are many ways to teach a child, but two very big ways that can have a massive impact on a child and their learning are reinforcement/punishment and mirroring. It is the child’s family that teaches them through these ways. The way a family teaches a child about how to act in the world is particularly important because it is through family that “many [children] first experience gender because societal differences between girls and boys are transferred through early teachings by family members...[they] dress
them in gender-’appropriate’ colors, give them different toys, and decorate their bedrooms in different ways that tend to facilitate and enforce cisgendered behaviors” (Shaw, 444). It is a popular belief that children “naturally gravitate toward stereotypical [behaviors]”(Berg 35), but that is false. The truth is that “[children] will play with anything...until age three...[when] parents push children into more gender-specific items” (Berg 35). Children then move towards toys, clothes, sports, and activities that fit into the gender-specific categories they have learned from their families.
Through reinforcement (both positive and negative) and punishment children learn what is okay and what is not okay for their own gender and the opposite gender. If a child acts a certain way and is punished, chances are that child will not act that way again; it will be ingrained in their brain that what they did was wrong. The reverse of this can also happen; if a child acts a certain way and is praised for it then that child will act that way again. However, studies have found that often times when male and female children perform the same action or behave in the same way, one gender is praised and the other is punished. An example of this comes from the book Children’s Gender Schemata by Lynn Liben and Margaret Signorella: a female child misses the bus home from school and decides to walk the short distance home rather than call someone to pick her up. When she tells her parents what happened they become upset at her for acting in a dangerous and irresponsible manner; she could have been harmed walking home alone. However, when a male child does the same and tells his parents about it he is praised for his initiative, independence and problem solving. Situations like this teach children “to become assertive or dependent as a result of reinforcement” (Liben & Signorella 6).
These types of encouragements and reinforcements lay the foundation for what comes later in life: sexism and misogyny . If, through these reinforcements, a child is always show that boys are supposed to be independent and strong, and that girls are supposed to be passive and dependent then that child will grow up with distorted ideas of the sexes. This distortion is what causes problems later in life when the child is now an adult in the workplace; they “impair a woman’s performance in counter stereotypical domains” (Mayor, 27). Women are often not shown the same respect as men in the workplace, and they are more likely to be passed by for promotions, leadership positions, jobs that are seen as “masculine”, and pay raises. Within the workplace there is something called vertical and horizontal segregation between men and women. The horizontal segregation “refers to the fact that many occupations are strongly gendered; the vertical segregation refers to the fact that men are often at the top of occupational hierarchies while women are very often subordinate” (Kaniko 9). It is because of this division that the idea of “men’s occupations” and “women’s occupations” has become so widespread.
And even when women are given the opportunity to be in positions of power and leadership they are not given the same respect as a man in their same position would get. Research has shown that “individuals tend to hold negative stereotypes of female managers...[they] were [given] more negative attributes compared to male managers...[and were] more likely than men to be implicitly associated with incompetent managerial traits” (Mayor, 77). Why? Because when they were children we taught them to think that way, and so as adults they put that knowledge to use.
The second major way a child learns is through mirroring, or watching what others-mainly the adults in their life-do and mirroring that behavior. They learn what is considered “man’s work” and “woman’s work” by watching what their parents do around the house. A child who is raised in a household where the mother does all the cooking, cleaning, caring for the children etc. will grow up believing that household labor is solely the woman’s job. If that child is male, then when he becomes a husband he will expect his wife to do all the household chores he observed his mother doing when he was young. If that child is female she will expect the burden of all the chores to be on her, and she will not expect her husband to help her out at all.
This unequal divide of work is the consequence of the “head-compliment” marriage model, where the husband is the main or sole breadwinner and the wife is the caretaker of the home, and the “junior partner/senior partner” marriage model, wherein both partners work, but the wife’s job is considered secondary to her husband’s and she is still responsible for being the caretaker of the home. These are the two most common models of marriage in the United States; often children take on the same model their parents had when they grow and have families of their own. These models are dangerous to females for several reasons. The first is that they create an unequal balance of power; in these models the husband has more power in the household, and so his needs, his job, his wants are seen as more important than the wife’s. In the case of the junior/senior model, the wife’s job is not seen as important as the husband’s, and so when a child is sick she is the one that has to take time off to care for the child.
If the husband is relocated she is one that will quit her job and move with her husband. She will “enter and leave the labor force based on the needs of the children and family” (Shaw, 449). The second reason is that in both models the wife is expected to take of most (or all) of the housework and child care. For women who hold jobs outside the home, the housework and child care they also do is like a second job; they return home from a paid job and begin their second job of being a wife and mother. They can expect little to no help from their husbands when it comes to cooking, cleaning and childcare. The children in these families see how their parents function, who is responsible for what and what jobs are considered for mommy and what jobs are considered for daddy, and they apply that knowledge to their own relationships when they get older. Thus begins a cycle of inequality between husbands and wives.
Now, some may argue that this divide of power and responsibility is not as vast as it seems. Some believe that the workload is equal when you look at several factors. It has been said that, while the wife may have more responsibilities with the household and the children, it evens out with the husband because he “loses out to a greater or lesser degree on the joys associated with household work-especially raising of children” (Shaw 449). They argue that the extra work wives do around the house is compensated by having more face time with the children, and getting to attend more events with the children such as sport games, dance recitals and school field trips. However, even with that compensation, the workload given to the husband is vastly different from the workload given to the wife, and the wife ends up doing a lot more work and having a lot more stress. The wife has “the emotional stress and physical burden of working two jobs” (Shaw 449). The only way to have true equality and division of work, chores and stress is to actually divide things equally and not let (or expect) the burden of most or all of it fall on one person.
Too often during a girl’s life she is discouraged from sciences and mathematics; no one comes outright and says she shouldn’t go into those fields, but through subtle cues she is “[pushed] away from pursuits believed to be for boys” (Monllos). AKQA launched a campaign a few years back that works to encourage young kids, particularly females, to take an interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In 2014 the campaign partnered with Verizon and created a video called Inspire Her Mind. The video aims to “make people think twice about how they interact with young girls [and show] how we treat children- particularly young girls- impacts the choices they make”.
This video is a great visual representation of the consequences of encouraging young kids to stay within their gender stereotypes. There are so few women in STEM jobs fields today because they were not encouraged to go into that field the same way men were. This is happening even though “female students tend to outperform their counterparts from elementary to secondary school and represent the majority of undergraduate students” (Faniko 26). Even though this is true, there is “paradoxically a loss of women at each step of the academic ladder leading to their underrepresentation at the doctoral level and among researchers” (Faniko 26).
As shown in the video these discouragements that young females get come in many forms such as giving them barbie dolls instead of trucks, or not allowing them the chance to explore nature. An example of discouragement in the video is when the little girl is playing in the river, but her parents are only worried about her getting dirty. No one has a problem with little boys rolling around in the mud, but girls are told that they have stay as clean as possible; what this tells a little girl is that the way she looks is more important than her exploring and learning something new, or even just having fun. Another example shown in the video is when the girl is slightly older and she is using a power tool; instead of encouraging her and the project she was trying to build her father tells her she shouldn’t be using that tool, and to hand it to her brother. This implies that the tool is not safe in the girl’s hand, and that girls are not supposed to deal with such tools. It discourages girls from working with their hands, and building things from scratch.
Reinforcing tradition gender stereotypes hurts child, particularly young girls, in both the long term and the short term; the above video and picture are both great examples of the long term effects. Young girls are not often encouraged to pursue STEM subjects, and what they are encouraged to do is usually along the lines of a “feminized skill set” (McGowan). In today’s society women are “still underrepresented in fields typically considered the most profitable ones” (Faniko 26).
One area of education where the difference in encouragement is extremely prevalent is within the Scouts of America programs. It is true that both Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts teach kids valuable skills, and they can be very educational, but for two groups who preach very similar values there is a great divide between what the girl scouts are being taught and what the boy scouts are being taught. The standards and missions of the groups are almost identical, yet when it comes to the things the children can earn badges or merits for the similarities come to a sudden stop. The activities the scouts do are very obviously based off traditional gender stereotypes. The badges the girls earn may sound very gender neutral, and very helpful to learn, but a closer look reveals the opposite. The Healthy Living badges and Science and Technology badges “teach girls how scientists measure happiness...emphasize the beauty benefits that result from eating well-balanced and nutritious meals” (McGowan).
Instead of teaching girls about the amazing things they could do as scientists or doctors and encouraging them to go into STEM subjects they are teaching them a very feminized version of those subjects. They are reinforcing the idea that girls should care more about the “girly” parts of science instead of just teaching them to love science. On the flip side of this you have the boy scouts, who are learning how to do things like shoot an arrow, camp, and climb mountains. In both groups the kids are being taught skills that are within the confines of traditional gender roles.
Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, girls and boys are not naturally into different things; boys are not born with a liking of all things sports, science, and “masculine” activities, the same way girls are not born with a liking of cooking, cleaning and nurturing. Boys and girls gravitate towards those things because that is what they have been taught to do. But children will play with just about anything, they will try just about any activity and will usually enjoy it, until someone comes along and says they shouldn’t because that activity or toy does not fit within their gender stereotype.
“You throw like a girl” “I don’t want to do that, that’s for girls” “That’s too girly” All of these insults, and many more like them, have a lasting impact on young girls and boys. For the girls, it teaches them that their gender is lesser and weaker; it teaches them to be ashamed to do things “like a girl”. For the boys, it teaches them that their gender is the better one, that being a girl or doing something “girly” is bad and lame. Instead of telling boys that doing something “like a girl” should not an insult or have any sort of negative connotations we tell them that they need to “man up” so no one thinks they are “girly”.
It also teaches boys that it’s okay to disrespect women this way. It teaches them that the worst thing they can be is a girl. When girls hear someone use their gender as an insult what they’re hearing is “all girls are weak”, or perhaps even “you’ll never get ahead if you act like a girl”. This cycle of “habitual and unconscious dialogue of misogyny [is] so stuck in our culture” (Chaplin) that we don’t even stop to realize the effects of it. By insulting someone using a gender as the insult we insinuate that “femininity is related to emotional or physical vulnerability; that crying is weak; that having compassion is powerless; that talking about how something affected [us] is insubstantial” (Chaplin). These insinuations continue the pattern of seeing women as weak, and men as strong.
Time and time again we see the detrimental effects of sexism. It begins at birth, with parents forcing stereotypical gender preferences on their children in an attempt to keep them in the “norm”. Without even realizing we teach our children sexist behaviors, by keeping them strictly within their traditional gender norms, and allowing them to see the female gender as the “worse” gender. We teach them these sexist behaviors by demonstrating them in our daily lives; we show them that women are the lesser sex by the way we treat women in today’s society. We show them that being a girl a bad thing by allowing them to use the excuse “that’s for girls” as a reason not to do something. We show them that housework and childcare is a woman’s job by not having husband’s and brothers do as much (if any) as wive’s and sisters.
As adults it is our job to teach, to inspire, to encourage the children, yet we do the opposite of that when we do not encourage young girls to pursue STEM fields and instead encourage them to pursue ‘feminine’ jobs such as nurses, elementary school teachers, and receptionists. At a young age so many girls have an interest in science but we crush that interest when we push girls away from those fields and push them towards jobs more “suitable” for women. We should be encouraging more girls to take an interest in science when they are young, and encouraging more women to pursue jobs in the field of science, math technology and engineering. They do, after all, earn on average better grades than their male counterparts.
In addition to encouraging more girls to take an interest in STEM, we should encourage them to take on new challenges all across the spectrum. This applies to the Scouts; instead of teaching girls mostly cooking and sewing skills we should be teaching them how to set up a camp, how to use a map and a compass in lieu of using a gps. We should be teaching Girl Scouts the same skills we are teaching Boy Scouts, and encouraging them into science the way we encourage the boys into science.
It is going to take some time and some learning, but it is very possible to create a generation of children who do not think in sexist ways. A generation of children who are all encouraged to go into science, to have careers, to do whatever makes them happy. We can create a generation that doesn’t label everything as being “girly” or “masculine”. We can put a stop to the sexism, and give everyone the same opportunities and encouragements.