It Takes a Community To Beat The Gender Bias

Early traits of gender labelling clearly show that a binary world has lasting effects on how children grow up to understand themselves and the world around them

The very beginning of human life is rooted in gender. The foundation of the boy-girl polarity is set since the child is born. Children are not born with the knowledge of gender boundaries but surprisingly, they tend to develop gender conformity within the first year of life.

As soon as children start exploring the me-myself-my body, their own understanding of being a boy or a girl develops. Children begin with appearance-based differences in the first five years of life but research has also shown that the majority of children use the gender labels before they are five years old. Children are also found to be associating different behavioural expectations with each gender in the first eight years of life.

Such early traits of gender labelling clearly show that the gendered world that we all live in has lasting effects on how children grow up to understand themselves and the world around them – as well as how to behave in the society they inhabit. Children are not only constantly observing the adults around them but also process simultaneously what category they belong to. 

The Reality

Studies in child psychology highlight that as soon as children understand what gender they fit into, they are found to be naturally gravitating towards the categories that have been thrust upon them from birth. Once children understand their gender tribe, the in-group affiliation dominates and they tend to adhere to tribe norms. This then influences their behaviour. 

Such trends about human growth and development force us to ponder that if the aim is to develop a world free of gender biases, we need to start from very early. Moreover, the two crucial agencies of a larger community that can play a very significant role in curbing down the gender stereotypes are- homes and preschools.

The Home

Many studies, especially in the last decade, point out a very positive and common thread from the perspective of parenting. The majority of parents across continents want to provide equal opportunities to their children, be it for any gender. That is not the full story though and the devil lies in the details. Plenty of research papers also indicate that even when parents believe that children should be treated equally, they may act or communicate in ways that inadvertently contradict this belief.

A large-scale observation-based survey presents that parents may also unknowingly reinforce gender stereotypes and differential treatment of girls and boys. For example, in most studies parents of young girls were more comfortable with the idea of them engaging in masculine-typed play, such as playing with trucks, whereas parents of young boys had lower levels of comfort about their sons’ participation in feminine-typed play, such as playing with dolls.

To add to this irony, research shows that parents of girls welcome what they perceive as gender non-conformity among their young daughters, but this is not the case for parents with sons. Moreover, research also suggests that fathers tend to hold more rigid views about gender roles and stereotypes than mothers do. Social literature is full of evidence suggesting that men typically have greater support for ‘traditional’ gender stereotypes and roles than women do. 

These are very eye-opening trends and the best way to check these adversities is to be aware of those. The more it is discussed, the more it is addressed. While the innate qualities that each gender brings to this world are beyond any debate, it is imperative to provide gender equality to young children for a sustainable tomorrow. 

Parents need to provide these non-traditional approaches in household tasks and caregiving opportunities at home. Research shows that in families where men are more active and have a greater role in caregiving, children learn that love and tender care can also be associated with fathers and male figures. This is the very beginning of breaking the biases around genders and for sure, charity begins at home. I would urge the fathers to challenge the gender stereotypes their children are otherwise exposed to, by taking on a significant and active role in household tasks and caregiving and role-modelling equality at home. Similarly, women need to take up responsibilities that are commonly perceived as masculine tasks at home like carrying bulky groceries or filing taxes for family.

The School

Gender biases unfortunately are not limited to the four walls of the home, instead, children are found to be exhibiting strict gender roles while playing with other children in social settings like preschools. 

There is evidence of a hidden curriculum that children tend to create on their own, especially in preschool settings. This might be coming from observations of elder peers or the wish to conform to the gender tribe- whatever may be the root cause- it is found to be existing across countries. Practitioners in early childhood settings in various countries have a ubiquitous observation- girls are dominating the home corners whereas boys are found to be heavily engaged with each other at computers and carpentry corners. Some studies especially conducted in role-play areas corroborate that there are unofficial 'girls only' and 'boys only' zones in preschools, more or less created by children themselves.

Early childhood educators can play a very crucial role here by putting conscious efforts to control subtle ways of gender conformity. Educational organizations that celebrate gender equality, focus on creating preschools with non-stereotypical gender discourses in play, invest in training staff on keeping a check on the unconscious bias are the future leaders to beat the gender biases from society at large. 

Countries like Vietnam can become role models to the world for controlling gender-stereotypical human behaviour. Gender-based violence remains a major problem in Vietnam, though it is often invisible. Research shows that nearly 70 per cent of married women experience some form of violence and it is rooted in how children were raised so far in homes and schools. To solve this massive problem, Vietnam’s Early Childhood teachers are given Gender Responsive training. Gender-responsive teaching and learning in the early years (GENTLE) project with preschool teachers, educational leaders and parents in Vietnam is not only developing gender equality in preschool settings but also hope to build a generation that will carry equal respect for both males and females. 

The Future

The journey to break the biases starts from home and preschools but cannot be contained over there. Research from countries such as Canada, Australia and Sweden highlights that factors such as paternity and paid family leave, and ‘family friendly’ workplace policies that regulate working hours, all support men’s greater participation in child-raising at home and provide leadership positions to women. Therefore, the corporate sector and government need to pick up the baton from parents and teachers to kill gender stereotyping.

According to World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity. It will take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide. We might not see total gender equality within this lifetime but to narrow down this gap, we need to start acting today. This equality stems from our thoughts and beliefs followed by actions and outcomes. Our children's beliefs are shaped by our actions and it is our responsibility to make them believe in a gender-neutral, bias-free world.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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