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Gender Stereotypes: Like a Girl

Let’s talk about gender stereotypes. I wrote about it once before but I made the mistake of thinking it was a message we needed to convey only to the girls. I never thought about the consequences of not discussing this essential topic with boys.

It Begins with Conversations

When G1 was little, I read a book titled “Nurture Shock“. It was an eye-opener on a number of common sense beliefs I held fast to, unknowing how wrong they were. Particularly enlightening was Chapter 3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race. You can click the link to read the detailed summary of the chapter, but this is the gist of it:

Parents mistakenly believe that by avoiding the topic of race, they will preserve their children’s innate colour-blindness to racial differences. What they don’t realise is that children as young as 3 are already identifying racial differences and forming their own opinions about them. Without discussion with a parent, children form negative beliefs about people who look different from themselves.

Similarly, when we don’t talk to boys about gender stereotypes, we allow them to come to their own conclusions about the topic. Without external influence, they could fall either way. But why leave it up to chance?

The Gender Stereotypes Bias

We have progressed a lot since the days when I was a child. We’re tearing down barriers between the things that only girls do or that only boys do. Something as simple as the pink shirt has finally transcended the gender stereotype. I think my brother was one of the early adult males to adopt the pink shirt. Even when it became acceptable for adult men to wear pink, little boys were not allowed to wear pink until recently. I still remember how difficult it was to find pink shirts for the boys to wear on “breast cancer awareness day” only a few years back.

Interestingly, I know I am digressing a little here, little boys don’t discriminate against the colour pink. Both my boys were fond of the colour pink from toddlerhood. The only reason boys reject pink is because they are taught to do so.

Although we have made progress with our views on gender stereotypes, we are not truly out of the woods yet. I learned this the hard way when G2 was teased for learning ballet as a boy. While some of us may be more forward in our thinking, we still live among those who have not progressed. Given that our children will inevitably interact with people who still believe that doing things “like a girl” is somehow inferior, we cannot stay silent on this topic.

The Long Kiss Goodnight

I talk about “us” and “them” like there are two groups active in the gender bias. Unfortunately, it is never really that black and white. So here’s my grandmother story…

Growing up, I always thought I was a strong female – a feminist and forward thinker despite the conservative upbringing I had. It wasn’t until I watched a movie called “The Long Kiss Goodnight” that I discovered an inherent bias in me that I didn’t even know existed.

If you’ve never seen this movie, this is the gist of the movie:

Schoolteacher and single mother Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) lives an average suburban life — until she begins having strange memories of unexplained violence and discovers that she has physical skills that she never imagined. Hiring private detective Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L. Jackson) to probe into her past, Samantha discovers that she’s a well-trained government assassin who went missing after suffering a bout of amnesia and that her former handlers want her back in their employ.

It is a pretty old movie and probably one of the few early movies featuring a strong female lead who could really fight. Until then, it was usually the male leads who save the day. I was so familiar with the male hero stereotype that I expected Mitch to save Samantha. Any minute now, Mitch is going to step up and save the day, I thought. I am ashamed to admit that when Mitch turned out to be the hapless side-kick, I was gobsmacked.

Examining Our Biases

I wanted to share the story about The Long Kiss Goodnight because we all have biases that we may be unconscious of. Sometimes, those biases show themselves when we least expect them. If we’re trying to talk to our children about fighting the bias, we need to be sure we’re not silently communicating the opposite message. Children can be extremely perceptive to such messages. That goes for both Mum and Dad. Just saying.

Like a Girl

This video was created with the aim to help girls preserve their confidence. The first time I watched it, it was the adult females who caught my attention. Now, the most significant scene for me is of the little boy who has just realised that his opinion of “run like a girl” is an insult to his sister whom he clearly respects.

We hear so much about how communication is key. It has never been truer for the topics we fear the most. Biases of all kinds will exist. If we want to our children to break the prejudice, we need to talk about it, not stay silent. The same goes for our own biases. We also need to look internally to see where our beliefs are in conflict with the messages we mean to share.

Making Progress

We were watching American Ninja Warrior the other night – DH, my in laws, G1 and G2. There was a male contestant trying to get through the ninja course when G1 turned to me and asked, “Mum, can you do that?”

Sadly, I cannot. What was significant to me about that question was that G1 asked me, the female parent. He did not ask Dad – the parent most children instinctively turn to when they think about strength. Yes, it is a small sign, but baby steps.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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