Casual sexism: why fight it?

I am a big fan of humanity. I love nothing more than watching documentaries or news items which demonstrate the human capacity for kindness, generosity and empathy: they fill me will pride on behalf of the human race, and optimism for our future.  And then sometimes – inevitably – humans do things that disappoint me and make me gnash my teeth in frustration and worry about the future of our world, our species, and our children.

Over the past few weeks, a number of seemingly innocuous incidents have occurred which reinforced for me the inherent sexism in our society that just won’t go away. As a blogger who deliberately avoids controversial topics, preferring to keep this space as a platform to share the day to day challenges of parenting, you might feel I have strayed from my remit a little here, but as a parent, I feel very strongly about the messages we send our children relating to their capabilities, their expected interests, and their role in society. We may pay lip service to the notion of equality, but if the pervasive message communicated in our day to day encounters suggests the opposite, then we are fighting a losing battle.

At a time when the world appears filled with danger, governments are unpredictable, and humanitarian crises are mounting, some may wonder if gender equality is our most pressing concern, but if we really want a world in which the better aspects of humanity are victorious over the darker sides, then viewing each other as equals – regardless of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, educational background or social grouping – MUST be our ideological goal.

The particular incidents that got under my skin may have passed unnoticed to others:  all arose in casual conversation; none were meant to be intentionally offensive; and all came from pleasant, friendly individuals who were unlikely to have examined their comments and found any fault with them. So was it me over-reacting?  Should casual gender stereotyping be ignored and regarded as harmless or is there something insidious about a cultural acceptance of comments that undermine one group of people, however subtly and however unintentionally?

For me, the answer lay in my gut reaction to the comments, which all related to stereotypical assumptions about gender roles and characteristics.  As a strong, independent woman who would not recognise myself as having been held back in life as a result of my gender, I was surprised at the feelings of discomfort and disempowerment these comments sparked in me.  I felt as if my value to society had been reduced down to a series of female gender roles and that my individual set of characteristics, skills and experiences had been cast aside in favour of a neat gender box.

So what is the solution? Part of me thinks that I – and others – should make more effort to call this kind of casual gender stereotyping to account. In truth, I do try and do this in my day to day life and, with people I know, I feel comfortable challenging comments and putting forward my objections. Often I may be met with eye rolling and protests, but I will comment all the same in the hope that a trickle effect will eventually begin to change mindsets, but it’s always a trickier situation when comments come from those we don’t know. None of us wish to start a heated debate with a stranger on the bus, or a kindly shop assistant whose words are poorly chosen and so, we let it go. We smile and move on and convey the impression that we are content and that we are in agreement with the commenter. And so it goes on: the stereotypes are perpetuated, and preconceived notions of gender roles appear no closer to becoming extinct than they were 20, 30 or even 40 years ago.

So why do I care so much? Well I care because I am a parent; I care because I am a teacher; and I care because I am a human who believes in humanity and wants to see it reach its potential.  All of us have a responsibility to help the next generation strive for a more equal society.  I witness my own girls try to make their way in a world keen to dress them as princesses, convince them their favourite colour is pink, and narrow their horizons. If I was ever uncertain about the effects of cultural gender stereotyping, I was made all too aware of it when my daughter – then aged 7 – told me she wished she was a boy because ‘boys do cool stuff and it’s better being a boy.’

In the same way, I wonder what it says to our children when girls can join Beavers, Cubs and Scouts, but boys do not join Rainbows, Brownies and Guides.  To even voice concerns about the message this send is to invite the comment ‘Well why would boys want to join Brownies when they do girly activities there?’ The message is clear – if you are a girl, you can aspire to be boy-like, but a boy will still be viewed with suspicion if he wants to sew, or wear princess dresses, or go to Brownies.

I know it can seem like I am part of the word police, out to pounce on anyone who says anything that could be construed as sexist or gender stereotyped, but I believe casual sexism DOES have an impact and we do need to fight against it. Our children DO listen and they DO unwittingly absorb the cues given in comments about how society EXPECTS them to behave.  In my view – when these expectations curb their potential and box them in – we all have a responsibility to avoid this.  Our children have a chance to push for a more equal society and we need to equip them well for that fight.  It’s the least we can do.

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  1. Nyomi says:

    Bravo, very well said! Two things happened to me this week. I was involved in recruitment where a more qualified woman was overlooked for a role for being too ambitious in favour of a less qualified woman who seemed nicer. Then I heard some teens tease each other by referring to one as an ‘old woman’s fanny. The fight is very much still needed!

    • Helena says:

      Thank you. Your first example is shocking and so frustrating! The second suggests the next generation are still going to have lots of work to do. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Matthew Smith says:

    My understanding about the Guides is that remaining all-female is their choice; it’s so that girls can do activities that might be dismissed as “boys’ things”, such as outdoor pursuits, and see other girls and young women do them, without having to worry about impressing or putting off boys or being harassed, particularly at secondary school age. That said, I attended a Cub ‘pack’ for one session when I was about 8 and it was awful; nothing but boys shouting and running around, then shouting slogans and being barked at by the “Akela”. It was like school playtime (where the playground was dominated by boys kicking footballs around; those not that way inclined were trapped by the fence and couldn’t leave) only worse. I don’t know why girls would be attracted to it; perhaps the Scouts actually do more worthwhile activities.

    As far as clothing is concerned, an awful lot of expression (bright colours, patterns, etc) is confined to female clothing while men are restricted to single (usually dull) colours and the odd stripe or sportswear logo here and there. Growing up in the 80s and 90s I saw a lot more women dressing colourfully than is the case now. It’s not all synthetic “pink princess” rubbish (but if that’s what is the dominant culture among girls, it’s no surprise that some won’t want anything to do with it).

    • Helena says:

      Thanks for commenting, Matthew. I think my view is that all these things (pink clothes, scouts, rough and tumble play) are fine but should be available to anyone who wants to do it / wear it without anyone having to worry about whether it’s gender appropriate.

  3. Julie Nelson says:

    Hi Helena
    Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with being the language police. If you believe that words can help determine the thoughts of others then you are in good company: the political correctness movement and it’s reinvention of gendered language came out of the civil rights and feminist movements.
    At my middle school in 1981 my teacher called my class friends and I everything from cretin to paki to dumbgirl. Let’s just say that at 11, it took a lot for many of not to repeat his behaviour in the playground.

    • Helena says:

      Yes. It’s definitely true that it has been important to challenge language that is derogatory. I guess it’s learning how to do it politely and effectively that’s the challenge!

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