Boys and Girls, Gender Stereotyping, and My Life’s Work!

If you’re in the UK you may have heard the buzz around a BBC two programme looking at how girls and boys are treated differently. It’s called No More Boys and Girls, a deliberately provocative title. The premise is that boys and girls are not substantially different in abilities or behaviour but the way we treat them makes them so. There is a neurologist on the programme who begins by telling the presenter that there is no discernible difference in the brains of boys or girls, or in strength. A big girl will be stronger than a small boy and vice versa, at least until puberty. Even I had brought into the myth that boys were physically stronger! (Hangs head in shame).

In the programme, a primary class on the Isle of Wight is subject to an experiment to see how much conditioning and stereotyping plays a part in how both perceive themselves. Both genders are asked a series of questions. The answers to these questions mirror the answers, or survey results, of adults. For example, in the programme it clearly showed that generally girls undersell their abilities, boys oversell. Girls actually do better than they thought when tested, and everyone is amazed. Women undersell themselves at  job interview, men oversell their abilities. The teacher, a lovely chap, brilliantly illustrates unconscious bias by how he treats and addresses the boys and girls differently. He is shocked to learn he asks more questions of the boys than the girls, for example. All credit to him of being so open, honest, and deciding to change.

Predictably, the programme’s premise has received a lot of flak on social media from people who say it is nonsense and boys should be boys and girls should be girls. They miss the point; we have determined what a boy should be and what a girl should be, and we’re doing neither any favours. Sex is biological, gender is a social construct. Both are missing out on opportunities in life.

Speak Up

My particular interest is in what happens to women who have been socialised in this way when they grow up. There are a plethora of studies that show this early conditioning stays with them, which, if not directly responsible for inequality, has a large part to play. It’s hard to shake off notions ingrained in childhood that boys are cleverer, stronger, etc. This was brought home to me most graphically when I was working in the Probation Service with groups of disadvantaged young women. Almost all were in thrall to a man who held sway over them, a fact they didn’t question, even when violence against them was involved. Equally, I worked with lots of young male offenders, in fact I was the lead officer for under 21 year olds males, I was kept very busy! Their inability to deal with their anger had led many of them into direct conflict with the law. Interestingly, on the BBC programme, the boys lacked a sufficient vocabulary to express their emotions except when it came to anger. There is a direct causal link, I am in no doubt, having run anger management groups for young men.

So what do you do? Well, as with the lovely teacher in the show, once you become aware of it, you can change how you think and behave. All is not lost. It’s why I wrote Speak Up. I looked at all the (pukka) research on gender differences and how women at work are treated and brought it into one place. (It’s not a fact heavy course though.) The very same issues that crop up for seven year olds re-occur in 27, 37 and 47 year olds. Helping them become aware of it helps them make changes, actual and psychological, that remove these barriers. For example, it is generally held that women talk more than men at work. Men think this, women think this. Actual observation of meetings shows this not to be true. Men talk the most, a surprise to both genders. But if you think you talk a lot, maybe you will find it harder to Speak Up?

I am running a Speak Up in Bristol in November at a very special one off price. Please check it out and come along. I’d love to see you! We might not be able to change the world but we can change our little bit of it.

I hope you can see the trailer below. If not, try clicking this link.

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Posted on August 22nd, 2017 by

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