The discussion over a gender equal world is one that is familiar to everybody – equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunities. It is spoken about almost everywhere and for good reason. After completing a very interesting module at university recently, it came to my attention how extremely important children’s playtime is in shaping the gender equal world we strive for.
Until recently, I had never put too much thought into this topic as it seemed like something so trivial compared to the struggles of adults. But when you think about it – how can we manage gender imbalances in the adult world if we don’t draw attention to where this possibly stems from? When shopping for toys for your nieces, cousins or perhaps your own child, does it really matter what they receive as long as they’re happy with it?
To illustrate, I’ll first introduce two hypothetical twins: one little boy and one little girl eagerly anticipating their 4th birthday. The big day arrives and their family showers them with loving gifts – so many toys! But as they begin unwrapping, it soon becomes very clear that the toys they received are rather specific to their gender.
While the little boy has received some epic building blocks and speedy toy cars, the little girl has received a beautiful dolls house and a sweet dolly to live in it, as well as a gorgeous princess crown. The children are overjoyed with their gifts and can’t wait to play with them – so there’s no problem, right? Unfortunately, this is precisely the problem.
A significant impact on children’s development stems from gendered play, and it can stay with them as they grow into adults. The girl’s doll promotes the important skills of caring and socialising – skills that will aid her when she starts school and needs to make friends in her bustling classroom environment. Meanwhile the little boy is learning motor skills and enhancing his knowledge of spatial awareness when he pushes his car around or stacks his blocks into impressive towers that stand tall and strong.
This means that, thanks to commonly receiving toys on the theme of dolls and pretend play, the little girl is behind with her motor skills, which most of her toys don’t promote. Similarly, the little boy struggles more than his sister with emotions and friendships at school, as he hasn’t learned empathy or practiced social skills so much through his playtime.
They’ll soon start school and go through the education system in the same classes. But once the time comes to pick their degrees – as reflected in HESA’s statistics – the boy will likely gravitate towards engineering, technology and mathematics, while the girl will more likely avoid these for social sciences, medicine and languages. Their early years of playing with gendered toys is likely to have some influence on their subject choices later on, which will obviously then lead to career choices.
Why would a young woman go for a career in technology or sciences when from a young age she was encouraged to play families with dolls, and was never given the starting supplies to foster an interest in creating or experimenting? Why would a young man go into a caring role when as a child he was never encouraged to practice those skills?
Research has shown that from a young age, children are able to make this link between toys and gender and will quickly become conscious of the ‘appropriate’ toys. If the little girl sees her brother receiving wildly different kinds of toys to her, then throughout her childhood she will gravitate towards toys she believes are suited to girls. She will then miss out on a wide range of experiences and opportunities she could get from her brother’s toys. And vice versa.
If we are raising children differently in respect of their gender, we cannot expect them to come out as completely unbiased adults. And that’s the bottom line here.
Now, of course, I’m not saying that this is the only cause of gender inequality – there are so many factors out there that I could never cram them into this article and have it still make sense. And yes, many boys do go into caring roles and many girls into science – and they do absolutely brilliantly in both – but data shows that certain fields are still dominated significantly by one or other gender.
So, maybe the next time you’re looking for a gift for a young child, please keep this in mind. And as we celebrate International Women’s Day today, think of this – among all of the dress-up dolls and accessories that the little girl receives, let your gift be the one that introduces her to all the skills and opportunities she is missing out on.