We’ve reached a rather awkward milestone in this household, one that makes me feel very uncomfortable. I’ve had several conversations with my kids – both of them daughters – and I’ve found myself feeling incredibly dismayed at the male entitlement and misogyny they’ve both had to tolerate.
These conversations have come at a very interesting time for me. As part of my degree course, I’ve been reading an old National Union of Teachers research study called Stereotypes Stop You Doing Stuff (Small point of fact: The NUT is now known as the National Education Union, or NEU). The conversations with my daughters have coincided with me getting to grips with this report.
I’ll simplify and paraphrase, but the study found that most kids start school largely unaware of gendered behaviour. By Key Stage 2 (around seven years of age), the usual gender stereotypes were on display, as was some male entitlement.
Numerous teachers were involved in the production of the study. Their involvement made them reflective and the teachers realised they were sometimes (and unintentionally) reinforcing stereotypes where boys were seen as strong and active and girls needed to be concerned about their appearance etc.
The teachers took steps to amend their behaviour. They made school a place where boys could explore traditionally female roles and gave girls opportunities to do things that were normally the reserve of boys.
One of the biggest challenges they faced, however, was that the kids were arriving at school with these ideas. It seemed to be us mums and dads who were encouraging kids to behave in certain ways and accepting male entitlement as a part of life. Indeed, some parents even complained these attempts at gender neutrality in the classroom were not suitable for their son / daughter (delete as applicable).
As I say, I’ve paraphrased and simplified. I’m sure you get the idea: Gender stereotypes start young and teachers are sometimes the ones left unpicking the unhelpful ideas parents have placed in the minds of their children.
Days after learning about this study I was chatting to Izzy, my nine-year-old, about her PE lessons. They’d recently been playing football and she remarked how some of the games were mixed but sometimes they played in girls-only teams and girls-only matches.
I didn’t like the sound of this, so I asked a few probing questions. Izzy explained she didn’t like playing in mixed teams. I asked her why and this was her response:
“The boys don’t pass the ball to us girls. They think they’re better than us because they have lessons after school.”
That comment could have been straight out of the Stereotypes Stop You Doing Stuff report. I haven’t yet queried this with the school (I plan to), but I am assuming some games are gendered so the girls get a fair opportunity to play. If my thinking is correct, it’s an imperfect response to a difficult situation, but at least the school is taking steps to address it.
As for my eldest daughter, let’s just say it’s been eye opening having a child in the secondary school system. I have been quite upset at some comments boys have made to her. I’m not going to reveal what has been said, and I obviously don’t know what was going on in their minds, but on the surface they seem to be from the I-am-male-and-therefore-entitled-to-speak-to-you-this-way school of thought.
I am not happy about the comments that have been made, but I am not going to condemn these individuals either. If there’s one thing I have rapidly learned since my eldest hit adolescence, it’s that youngsters of that age are on the steepest of steep learning curves. They need help and guidance, not condemnation.
These young people have to learn what is and isn’t acceptable and that does take time. They are still learning about gender stereotypes. What they think is acceptable today, they quite possibly won’t think is acceptable when they’re 17 years of age (I would hope so anyway). That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged, but they must be given a chance to learn from their mistakes while they are young and in the case of male entitlement, learn such behaviour is unacceptable.
I also write as someone who only has experience of raising daughters. I’m sure there are mums and dads with sons who could tell me about gendered discrimination and abuse their male offspring have experienced from girls. It’s just not something I can write about from personal experience.
I also have to think about my own behaviour when I was young. I was on that same learning curve and I can’t tell you I was perfect. Unconscious bias and male entitlement are two concepts I had to unlearn to a certain degree.
I vividly recall playing a mixed game of hockey at school. It’s a game us boys very rarely played and the only mixed game I can ever recall playing. A girl on my team had the ball and I could see a wide-open part of the field that she didn’t seem to be heading for. In a prime example of unsporting behaviour, I tried to get the ball off her so I could send the ball into the open territory (remember, she was on my team so my logic was questionable from the start).
I totally messed it up. My attempts sent us both crashing to the floor. It was one of those classic, horrendous teenage moments. I’d made a complete fool of myself in front of my peers. I felt awful for tripping her up and knew I’d made a huge mistake.
Would I have tried to get the ball off a male teammate? I can’t honestly answer that question, but having once been punched by a male opponent on the rugby field, I suspect I’d have given it more thought before trying anything so stupid (at least when I got punched we were on opposing teams). Whatever my thinking during that hockey game, I learned from my mistake.
That’s one example where I totally messed up and spent days hiding my shame, along with my acne-covered face, underneath my long, floppy fringe. In my defence, The Shame of the Hockey Pitch was not typical of my behaviour. It was a stand out event and that’s probably why I remember it and why it came to mind after speaking to Izzy about her PE lessons. I also never spoke to girls the way my eldest child has been spoken to by some boys. It’s deeply upsetting and makes me wonder why they think such behaviour is acceptable and why they think they are entitled to speak to females in a degrading fashion. I very much doubt they’d speak to male peers the same way.
I’ve always been one to champion men who acknowledge and fight gender stereotypes. I’ve long campaigned for men’s caregiving skills to receive greater recognition. There’s much more work to be done to normalise the idea that men can be great caregivers, but great strides have been made over the past decade.
Alas, it’s not all good news. As my kids grow up and have new experiences in the wider world, they’re coming face to face with misogyny, male entitlement and unconscious bias. I’m not stupid enough to suggest it was no longer a problem and I knew it was an issue my daughters would, unfortunately, have to contend with. Nonetheless, I had hoped it wouldn’t be such a big thing for Gen Z and Gen Alpha. When nine-year-olds have to play football in gendered teams, it’s a wake-up call the world hasn’t moved on as much as it should have done. The biggest worry for me, as the NEU report seemed to show, is that these negative, life limiting ideas about gender seem to come from the family home. That’s something we all need to consider.