Gender inequality starts at playtime: how to tackle bias in childhood

Children become aware of gender norms at around two years old

In the UK, only 14% of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce is female. The gender pay gap across almost all industries remains stubbornly high. And predominantly female professions like social work, nursing and early childhood development remain woefully underpaid.

According to a growing coalition of civil servants, researchers and private sector actors, tackling those inequalities requires early intervention to correct gender biases that take root long before people reach the workforce — and even before they reach school.

For more like this, see our early childhood newsfeed.

Role Play

“When children play, they learn,” Emma Perkins, senior director of Lego, told the Equal Play Conference, hosted on 29 October in London’s City Hall.

Learning through play can reap immense benefits: play fosters resilience, social skills and creativity. But it can also be the moment at which children adopt ideas around gender that shape the trajectory of their lives.

By the age of two or three, children grasp fundamental norms around gender. Consciously or unconsciously, parents, teachers and peers coax or coerce children into a restricted set of choices based on their gender. That isn’t just colour-choice, but a plethora of identity-shaping roles.

In general, boys are encouraged to be intrepid and adventurous, while girls are too often silenced, praised for neatness rather than their achievements.

Where young boys see other men in heroic and historical roles, girls are still left with princesses waiting for marriage. When Mattel recently released a “STEM Barbie”, her engineering skills extended no further than building rotating shoe and clothes racks.

“It massively limits potential,” said Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society. “The conditioning you have as a girl to speak second and to put others first has lifelong consequences,” she added — one of many factors that account for the scarcity of women in positions of leadership in business, as in STEM. In 2017, women made up only 22% of board positions. In 2018, that percentage fell.

A 2016 study by Kidzania found that “the gender divides in children’s career choice are expressed from as early as four years old.” Those patterns are reinforced throughout childhood and adolescence: a Deloitte report from the same year found that 40% more boys took STEM A-level subjects than girls.

That isn’t an expression of biological difference, said Gina Rippon, emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Aston, and author of a forthcoming monograph on the gendered brain.

“There’s a very little [gendered] difference in baby brains,” said Rippon, “but by five years old, children become fierce gender detectives.” They police gender norms by shaming and excluding behaviour that fails to map on to neat gender binaries, just as society does throughout the life course.

“What goes on in our brain reflects what’s going on in our world — and if it’s gendered, that will gender the brain,” she said. Performance disparity in certain tasks could be formed in those first years: that men perform better in tests regarding spatial awareness is hardly surprising, Rippon argues, when young boys are encouraged to build Lego structures or play video games, while girls are steered towards activities that make little use of technical and spatial skills.

Gender socialisation isn’t always to the benefit of young boys, however. When young boys are taught — often through play — not to cry, never to show weakness and to repress vulnerability, they are forced into an emotional straitjacket from which some never escape. Social norms around archetypal masculinity have been widely linked to suicide, which is currently three times as common among men as women.

Switching the script

Starting to undo those norms requires action on multiple fronts, said advocates.

Guy Parker, CEO of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), announced a sharper focus on gendered advertising, including new regulation stating that “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious and widespread offence.” In 2015, the ASA banned a series of advertisements placed in tube stations advertising a protein supplement widely condemned for promoting an unhealthy body image for women and girls.

The City of London also revealed new measures in the form of a Gender Action Award to incentivise schools to end gender bias in the classroom. Launching in 2019, the Greater London Authority-funded project will formally recognise schools that combat harmful gender norms, and provide support on how best to address both conscious and unconscious gender bias among staff.

The initiative comes on the back of a pilot project in Scotland, now scaling nationwide, that increased the number of girls enrolling in A-level STEM subjects threefold in only two years, according to Beth Bramwell, the gender balance manager at the Institute of Physics, which jointly coordinates the new initiative.

Changing often invisible and deep-rooted gender norms isn’t easy — a theme that echoed in every conference speech and workshop — but it is both a moral and economic imperative. “Gender equality benefits everyone,” said Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society.

“It needs to be as unacceptable as diesel cars and single-use plastic to roll out gender stereotypes,” Smethers said. Now, the City of London agrees. — Edward Siddons

(Picture credit: Flickr/Magdalen_A_T)

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