A first step in a revolution?

Samantha Wratten watches 'No More Boys and Girls: Can our Kids go Gender Free?'

The introduction of the UK Equality Act in 2010 was a turning point for gender equality, but in the seven years that have passed, has the UK become a gender equal society? Many argue yes, because there are now laws against sex discrimination, but sex inequalities are rooted deeper than the laws which govern a society at a given time. The two-part BBC documentary ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ sought to test just how equal UK society is since the introduction of the Equality Act, by working with seven-year-olds who, in theory, have been raised from birth in a gender equal society.

It becomes clear early on in the documentary that despite the changes in the law, boys and girls are not being raised equally. Initial tests reveal girls’ lack of self-esteem and a tendency to refer to themselves purely in terms of their appearance. Meanwhile, boys score highly on spatial awareness, but struggle to express themselves emotionally – except for anger. These differences reflect longstanding gender stereotypes which predate the Equality Act, and persist to this day. In the documentary, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim questions the extent to which these gender stereotypes, embedded and normalised in everyday life, are the cause of the test results. The biological differences between males and females do not fully explain gender inequalities, so Javid implemented a range of interventions to test what happens when we remove gender stereotypes from children’s lives.

When it comes to gender inequality, many often underestimate the effect of nurture, attributing differences between males and females solely to their biological differences. It is culturally ingrained to treat males and females differently, so few see the harm in the extreme but everyday gendering exposed by the documentary. For example, parents failed to link dressing their children in sexist slogan t-shirts with the way their children then think about themselves, or that gendered toys limit the skills their children can develop. The experiment sought to remove gender stereotypes from these children’s lives, for example by shedding gendered language, removing gendered toys, and introducing the children to non-conforming role models, such as a female mechanic and a male ballet dancer. Six weeks later, in comparison to the control group there was evidence of significant changes in the way the children thought and felt about themselves, as well as their behaviours and achievements. Teaching the children to challenge ingrained assumptions about gender improved not only the girls’ self-esteem, but opened their minds to their future potential. Removing gender stereotypes was not only beneficial for females; the boys were able to express a wider range of emotions, which was thought to explain the 57 per cent decrease in their disruptive behaviours.

These findings have been met with praise and a resolution for change by many, but the documentary has also received criticism. Many of these criticisms stem from the confusion between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. The documentary advocates a need to discard gender, not sex. There will always be biological differences between males and females, but what needs to change is how we treat individuals based on these differences. Gender stereotypes are harmful to all; they create inequalities that are limiting for all sexes, and it is for these reasons that we should remove sex-specific expectations and assumptions. Indeed, there are positive traits and behaviours that are seen as typically ‘masculine’ or typically ‘feminine’; the message is not that we should discard these, but that we should encourage these in all individuals.

Abolishing gender stereotypes would also reduce a well-established psychological phenomenon; stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs in relation to a social identity that can be deemed negative in some circumstances, creating a threat of fulfilling this negative stereotype (see Claude Steele's 2011 book Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do). Doing a difficult task whilst trying to avoid fulfilling a negative stereotype can cause the individual to exert so much effort that it actually results in underperformance, attributed to increased anxiety and rumination. In relation to gender, this threat perpetuates the inequality bred from birth and evinced in this documentary, but would not exist if identities were not so heavily gendered in the first place.

The documentary makes a bit of an overgeneralisation by suggesting that these results, found in one primary school class on the Isle of Wight, may apply to children across the country. This remains to be seen, but what we do know is that these small, easy to implement changes began to undo the negative consequences of deeply rooted gender stereotypes. This experiment can be seen as a first step in a revolution intended not to raise sexless children, as critics suggest, but instead to raise boys and girls equal in confidence, aspirations, and beliefs, in turn helping them to become happier, healthier, more authentic versions of themselves.

- Reviewed by Samantha Wratten from the University of Bath.

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