With Laura in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”, and Josefina in American Girl’s “Beforever” we see two clear examples of how the bias of gender roles is deep-rooted and can be limiting from an early age particularly for girls–Laura is told by her mother that as a girl she cannot be a cowboy, Josefina’s father is able to read but she herself has never been taught, and is therefore illiterate, because she is a girl. Similarly, recently in Laura Bates’s article for the Guardian “Young Children Must be Protected from Ingrained Stereotypes” the consequential limitations and negative effects for children, especially girls, of such stereotypical gender expectations early in life are examined.
While adults can look at sexism and gender bias with a critical eye, children are far more susceptible to it, on both a conscious and unconscious level. This bias has ethical and moral implications of imposing stereotypical expectations upon young students as to what they can and cannot do. As Bates expresses “Sexist assumptions about boys and girls can have a long-lasting effect on children” damaging motivation as well as grades.
Bates discusses studies published by the US-based National Bureau of Economic Research which demonstrate that “gender bias from the earliest years can have long-term implications” with research indicating definite bias, whether consciously or not, by teachers who expect boys to excel in math and science subjects while blind testing actually showed that many girls performed as well, if not better, than boys in these areas. I feel that the article does a good job and makes fair and salient points about the need for dispelling gender stereotypes, while at the same time not demonizing those who choose to associate themselves with more traditional forms of femininity and masculinity. It is, rather, a quiet rally cry to get us to think more critically about the effects of such gender bias on children who may or may not be aware of it.
Despite the evolution of women’s rights and definite advances in opportunities for girls in recent years, the old rhyme “Sugar and spice and all things nice that’s what little girls are made of……snips and snails and puppy dog tails that’s what little boys are made of” seems to still be lurking under the surface. Just as I am pretty sure that the aforementioned adage has actually been proven to be biologically incorrect, so too have the long held notions of gender that “boys are good at math, science, building things and generally being smart” while “girls are good at cooking, cleaning, sewing, and generally looking and smelling good” being successfully challenged. Not that girls and boys can’t be good at the aforementioned things respectively but it is becoming more and more clear that those talents are not gender-linked. Over time expectations are realized when girls are consistently discouraged from pursuing certain opportunities. While these attitudes toward gender stereotyping have existed for decades, over the years it has become increasingly obvious, what should have been clear from the beginning, that teaching limitations to girls is what ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling goal.
In more recent years, a spotlight has been increasingly shone on this aspect and, fortunately, attitudes towards gender bias are beginning to change. While we must continue to work on protecting children from this gender stereotyping and optimizing, rather than limiting, opportunities it is also encouraging to see that awareness is growing among some children themselves. One example–American Girl have just released a boy doll for the first time!
As Bates states, “Luckily some kids are on top of it…” and, to end on an optimistic note I’ve included the following youtube video of a young girl discussing this subject, which has had over 74,000 hits and counting, as an example of exactly that!