Why Gender Stereotypes Matter

Every since high school I have been aware of the role gender plays in my life. I’m not talking about boy likes girl or girl likes girl. I’m talking about the opportunities in life that are defined by, or arranged by, the gender I was born into. The clothes I wore determined the freedom of movement to run about. My performance in the classroom was defined by the phrases people used to praise or encourage me and these were gendered. The future of the girl trained to be good was very different to boy encouraged to be brave. My first – and successful – act as a feminist, at the age of 13, was to demand that girls in my class get access to the wordwork and metalwork classes and the boys to the home economics classes.

From the age of 13 I have resisted the constraints of gender. I wanted to know what it would be like to live a life that wasn’t formed by the unwritten rules of girlhood, womanhood, female in the world.  Fast forward several decades and I made a career of being an expert in gender equality.

That’s just to say that, now that I am almost 60, I have had a lifetime to practice being aware of gender stereotypes and acting in a gender equal way. I have had a lifetime of promoting going beyond male/female stereotypes. At the moment I am working on a project to connect European civil servants to training materials that will support them in including gender in their policy development work. If that sounds vague, its not. Here is a great example: in more and more orchestra’s these day musicians undergo “blind” auditions – their name and their gender are unknown to the judging committee. The result has been that more women have been employed, simply because the blind auditions are living proof that the presumption that men play better has been proven wrong.

Or what about this example for city planners in northern climes: In the event of high snowfall, which roads should be cleared first? It’s a bit like Euler’s Seven Bridges of Königsberg question, except unlike Euler’s problem this one does have an answer. Gender-equal snow removal looks at who is using the roads. The old approach was to clear main roads first, followed by areas where men typically work, like construction areas. Pedestrian walks and cycle paths were the last to be cleared. The question a gender-aware person would ask is: what is the point of the roads being cleared if parents can’t drop their children off at school first?

You have the picture. Not only do I think that gender-awareness is an important part of working towards a world that works for everyone, with no-one excluded, it is also something I think is part of who I am.

Why then was I surprised this morning to notice that I make a point of communicating with my son about babysitting my 16 month old grandson, rather than slipping into gendered option of directing my questions to the child’s mother?

My son grew up with two loving mothers who are aware of the importance of bringing up a child free of gender stereotypes. He had a  doll, Pete, replete with penis and able to pee if filled with water. Not that he ever played with Pete. Construction toys, balls and cars were his passion – that and drumming. He loved wearing warm colours, pinks and reds and oranges. When he declared, probably at the age of 6 or 7, that he would not wear pink any more he sagely shared with an adult friend that he thought he would always stay with the warm tints. Last night he wore burnished orange trousers with a plaid shirt in the same orange theme.

My son fell in love with his son Felix at first sight. From the very beginning he was 100% parenting the tiny little fellow. He had to deal with inequalities right from the start. When in the first month of his life my grandson spent several nights under lamps in hospital to take care of jaundice, his mother was offered a bed. His father had to go home and come back the next day. My son had some parental leave after his son was born; his partner had months off work.  Despite these inequalities it was always my son who strapped his baby to his body to help him sleep, and my son gets up at night when the baby cries. He is really a great dad.

Yesterday I babysat for my grandson the first time in the evening, while his parents had a date night. Both his parents gave me the information I needed to prepare him for bed the way he likes to be prepared. Felix and I ate together, we read books, we cuddled and then he went to sleep. After a few hours he woke up, and I took him in my arms like I used to take my son in my arms, and breathed sleep back into him. Half way through the night I got a Whats app from my son, inquiring into how the evening was going. I assured him all was well and that I was having a great time with Felix. When they came home, both parents were keen to know how Felix had fared and I found myself really having to make sure that I addressed both parents, not just the mother. This morning I sent a Whats app to my son to ask how the night had gone after I left and told him more of the details he wanted to hear the night before – about what time he went to bed, what time he woke with cramps, what time he got back to sleep again. I sent the message to give information, but also to underline that I appreciate my son as the wonderful and caring parent that he is.  I also sent it for my own benefit; to remind myself to fully support my son in his parenting.  I am delighted to see that my son is being the parent I always wanted men to be able to be, and that the parenting revolution that I was part of is the new reality of young parents today.

Here is my tough learning point today. We may have created the new reality, we are responsible for ensuring that we don’t slip into old patterns. The new reality is a living creation. Gender equality will not happen just because some policies are put in place – in business, in government or in the home. We need to stay fully engaged in making it happen.


Lin McDevitt-Pugh provides management leadership to gender equality projects. Living in a world where we all experience dignity and respect drives her – in schools, in offices, in government institutions.

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