About a girl

International Women’s Day is a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come since the days of the suffragettes, and how far we still have to go; to think about women around the world who can only dream of the things I take for granted. It often passes me by, but this year it has more personal significance.

Ten months ago I brought a brand new, tiny woman into the world. We didn’t know she was a girl until she was safely bundled in a scratchy NHS towel, and it wouldn’t have made a difference to us either way. But it got me thinking about the responsibility of bringing up a girl in 2015. About what I can do to make sure she grows up knowing she’s important and equal, and is able to do as much or as little with her life as she pleases.

And about how much of that isn’t up to me at all.

The great divide

In many ways J is lucky she was born in 2015 not 1815, and in England not Saudi Arabia. But that doesn’t mean she’s in for an easy ride. There are more MPs in Westminster called John than there are women. Men still earn on average 17.5% more than women. Two women are killed every week by a male partner in the UK. Women remain woefully underrepresented in science, engineering, sport, music... the list goes on.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we, as parents, and society as a whole influence our children from birth onwards to take their position on either side of the great divide. A baby’s gender is the first thing anyone wants to know when a woman announces her pregnancy. And it’s a dichotomy no parent can avoid as they bumble through the early years. Sexist assumptions about girls and boys can have a lifelong impact on children. Friends, family, advertisers, school curriculum-designers, toy manufacturers, filmmakers... we’re all to blame.

We want to bring J up in the most gender-neutral way possible until she can make her own decisions (much to the chagrin of the strangers who practically accused me of child abuse for dressing her in blue on two separate occasions). She rolls in mud and plays with Duplo. She’s got one doll that she loves, but I suspect that has more to do with the fact that its bald rubber head fits perfectly into her mouth than her innate maternal instincts.


It all starts with expectations, and it’s happening already. Well-meaning friends lavish J with praise for being cute and well behaved, while delightedly commenting on her male friends’ strength and boisterousness. It’s no wonder many girls grow up thinking their worth lies in looking good and following the rules rather than in being active and taking risks – in other words, in being rather than doing.

A BBC Horizon documentary last year, Is your brain male or female? challenged age-old gender stereotypes under laboratory conditions. In one experiment, the researchers asked mothers to estimate how steep a slope their toddler could safely crawl down. The mothers of boys consistently chose steeper inclines than the mothers of girls. If we set the bar low for girls when they’re just learning to interact with the world, is it any wonder many grow up with small expectations of themselves?

STEM sells

Enter any toy shop, and you’ll be confronted with two choices: step into the pink zone for dolls and plastic ovens. Pick the blue zone for building blocks and chemistry sets. The pastel-hued message is clear. Women cook and care; men work. The division isn’t fair for either gender, but it can be actively damaging for girls. Few girls’ toys help develop spatial skills, creativity and confidence with technology.

It gets worse at school. Parents took to Twitter recently to complain about a homework assignment that asked six year-olds to research a scientist or inventor. The question read: “Who was he? ...How old were they when they began inventing? Did they have a wife and family?”

Lego instructions from 1974 advised parents against gender stereotyping, explaining: “A lot of boys like dolls’ houses. They're more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls’ houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.” But fast forward to 2015 and Lego’s pink-tinged Friends range comes with straplines like “Cupcakes are ready!” and “Time to chill with the girls at the beauty shop!”

Lego letter

It’s not much of a stretch to suggest this crude categorisation sows the seed for the current situation in which women make up only 13% of employees in science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) jobs in the UK. As Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project points out: “This might seem extreme until, as I have, you visit primary school classrooms and realise just how many under-10s genuinely think that girls aren’t allowed to be footballers or doctors or lawyers.”

But the kids are taking matters into their own hands. Last year a seven year-old’s complaint to Lego that “all the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs, but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people… even swam with sharks" went viral. In January, Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss warned toy manufacturers of the risk of turning girls off careers in science and maths by producing gender-specific toys.

Horizon had a challenge for those who believe gendered preferences are hardwired from birth by sending a boy and a girl toddler to play in separate rooms with an adult, under video surveillance. The adult who spent time with the “girl” reported that she gravitated towards dolls, while the adult who hung with the “boy” attested that he went straight for the building blocks and trucks. But the researchers had lied to the adults and switched children’s genders, dressing the boy as a girl and vice versa. Video evidence proved the adults had steered the rugrats in the direction of the “appropriate” toys for their gender.

Everybody needs a hero

Helena Jamieson, our VP, Client Services, was dismayed to discover her local Chuck E. Cheese demonstrating a startling lack of imagination by promoting “superhero” birthday parties for boys... and “princess” parties for girls. As four-year-old Riley Maida pointed out in an attack on toy marketing tactics in 2011: "girls want superheroes and boys want superheroes."

Disney may take the blame for the happily-ever-after princess myth that is thrust upon so many little girls. But its modern films like Frozen, Tangled and Pocahontas begin to address the balance with plucky, empowered female role models. Helena (whose three-year-old daughter is an avid Frozen fan) warns against the temptation to elevate girls to believe they are princesses – “They’re going to fall.” Dressing up as a princess can be fun, Helena knows – as long as it’s balanced with healthy doses of Lego and books.

Pink thinks

But things are looking up – slowly. Toy shops like Hamleys are abandoning gender segregation. The wonderful Pinkstinks campaign targets products and marketing that prescribe “heavily stereotyped and limiting roles” to young girls. Let Toys Be Toys takes the toy and publishing industries to task for limiting children’s potential. Lego has launched a range of three female scientist figures, which sold out in a matter of days.

Roominate is the brainchild of engineers Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, who gave an inspiring talk at Solidworks World 2015. Its mechanical design toys encourage young girls to develop problem-solving, spatial and fine motor skills, preparing them for success in STEM subjects. Another pair of smart women is busy launching a range of jewellery designed to encourage girls to explore programming and 3D printing.

Does this all matter? As a feminist, there are always bigger fish to fry after all. My daughter is unlikely to experience female genital mutilation, be banished from her village for a few “unclean” days each month or have her right to drive a car questioned. But if we can’t equip little girls – as well as boys – with the skills to build things, ask questions and influence events, we stand no chance of addressing the worldwide gender imbalance.

And if J’s current fascination with electrical cables is anything to go by, I’ve got a little engineer in the making.

Happy International Women’s Day.


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