Is it a boy? Is it a girl? Does it really matter?
“Is it a boy or a girl? A girl? Oh got to get her the lovely pink dress I saw. “
“There, there little one. Boys are strong and should not cry! Don’t be such a girl!”
“Don’t be such a softy. Man up!”
“Oh look! Such pretty ‘girl legos’ “
“Little girls should be seen, not heard”
Chances are, you’ve heard at least one, if not all these statements at some point in your life. You can probably think of many more statements that taught you what it meant to be a girl or a boy. Statements that taught you that your value was somehow connected to whether you’re a boy or a girl; statements that made you feel that there were certain things that you could do and others that you shouldn’t because of the label boy or girl.
Perhaps someone said it to you when you were a child and maybe you have said it to a child yourself. Statements like these, though seemingly harmless actually has great influence on the lives of children, on how children are able to access and enjoy their rights, and on how children experience their childhood.
Sex and Gender: One and the Same?
When a child is born, one of the first things that adults tend to do is to determine the sex of the baby by identifying the genitals of the baby. The assumption is that a male child would usually have a penis and a female child would usually have a vagina. Based on the organ that the baby has, the child would then be automatically assigned their gender according to the prevailing norms in that particular society. A child who is identified as being male would automatically be assigned the label boy whereas a child who is identified as female would automatically be assigned the label girl.
Even when meeting someone new, one of the first labels that we identify them with is gender. People tend to feel uncomfortable if they can’t neatly put people into gender boxes. Maybe this “need to know” has something to do with “knowing how to act” with this person.
In Malaysia, there is a tendency to use the word sex and gender interchangeably. Do the words sex and gender have the same meaning?
According to the American Psychological Association, sex refers to a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female, or intersex (i.e., atypical combinations of features that usually distinguish male from female). There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and external genitalia.[i] Simply put, a person’s sex is usually determined by their sexual and reproductive anatomy, their genetic makeup, and their hormones. Biological sex usually identifies a person as male, female, or intersex. A person’s sex is usually characterized by their chromosome such as XX and XY. A person with XX chromosomes and female sex and reproductive organs would be identified as female. A person with XY chromosomes along with male sex and reproductive organs on the other hand would be identified as male. Sometimes, a child is born with sex chromosomes that are different from the usual XX and XY. The child may develop sex and/or reproductive organs that are ambiguous – not completely male or female. People with these chromosomes are usually known as being intersex.[ii] Increasingly, there are people who posit the idea that there are really more sexes than just male and female.
People are often expected to look and behave a certain way based on their biological sex. Males are usually expected to act and look ‘masculine’, and females ‘feminine’. There are certain behaviours and norms that people are expected to conform to, based on their sex assigned at birth. This expectation of how a male or female should behave and look is what gender is about. According to the American Psychological Association, gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.[iii]
In simple words, gender refers to the differences in attitudes and behaviour, and these differences are a product of a socialisation process rather than a natural state of things. Gender also includes the different expectations that society and individuals hold as standards of appropriate/acceptable behaviours of men and women. For example, in many cultures, men are expected to be strong and macho. In contrast, women are expected to be gentle, feminine and nurturing. These expectations though widespread, can differ from culture to culture. Gender is not the same over the world. It varies between and within societies, is a learned behaviour and it can and has changed over time.
In reality, we all express masculinity and femininity in different ways. Each individual might relate to some part of masculinity or femininity more than others. Some people feel like society’s expectations about gender don’t fit or work for them at all.[iv] And, this is where the challenge lies in creating safer environments for children. For some children, navigating these terrains of gender expectations can be very challenging and over-whelming, particularly in societies and environments where a rigid idea of gender roles and behaviours are enforced.
Gender socialisation begins from the moment we are born, from the simple question “is it a boy or a girl?”
Our ideas and views about acceptable behaviours for boys and girls is a product of a process known as ‘gender socialisation’. This process of ‘gender socialisation’ begins from the moment of birth. Based on the sex of the child, the child is taught by the adults in their life about what it means to be a boy or girl. This seemingly harmless process ignores the reality of how a child’s gender assignment is a powerful social identity that shapes children’s lives and even ignores how a child may want to identify him/herself.
This process of gender socialisation facilitates and ensures that children grow up fitting neatly into pre-determined boxes of boy or girl, man or woman. This process teaches children what is acceptable and appropriate behaviour for a boy or girl. This process also teaches children the consequences of not conforming to the acceptable social norms surrounding their gender identity.
Where do we learn our gender roles?
Most of us have undergone a process of gender socialisation from our parents, families, teachers, schools, media, culture, religion, peer groups and various other agents of socialisation. Each of these agents of socialisation not only teaches us the acceptable way to express our gender but also play the important role of reinforcing and maintaining gender stereotypes. It is a vicious cycle of reinforcing gender norms and stereotypes that we all inevitably become a part of.
A child first learns what it means to be male or female from his/her parents. If we think of a scene of a couple welcoming their newborn, chances are, a male child would be wrapped in a blue blanket and a female child would be wrapped in a pink blanket. From the time a child is born, parents begin to treat their sons and daughters differently, whether intentional or not. This can be seen in the colours that we don our children in, in the toys that we buy for our children, and even in the way we speak to our children. The types of words that we use when interacting with our children differs based on the presumed gender identity of the child. A boy would likely be called ‘strong’, ‘handsome’, ‘hero’, among other words. Whereas a girl would likely be told that she is a ‘princess’, ‘pretty’, ‘sweet’, ‘beautiful’, among other words. If you’ve seen a newborn child, I’m sure you’d agree that it’s actually quite difficult to tell a male or female child apart unless we’re explicitly informed of their sex. Most of us would probably rely on the colour of the blanket to make a call on whether the baby is a girl or boy. So, why the difference in the words that we use? Why the difference in the type of characteristics and expectations that we place on the babies? This is where our experience of gender socialisation comes in. We are all, after all a product of gender socialization ourselves.
A child’s earliest exposure to what it means to be male or female comes from parents. Children internalize parental messages regarding gender at an early age. Studies have shown that parents encourage their children into gendered activities with girls being encouraged to play with dolls, princess stuff or traditionally feminine activities such as cooking, cleaning, care-games and others.[v] Whereas boys are usually encouraged to play sports, trucks, army and other activities. It is not uncommon to hear a child being chastised for wanting to play a game that does not conform to the expected norms of what a girl or boy should do. Through this process, children begin to learn about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours that are connected to their gender identities.[vi]
Besides acceptable types of play, children also learn from a very young age about expectations that are imposed on them based on their perceived gender. Let’s take household chores for example, girls are more likely to be assigned tasks related to cooking, cleaning, laundry and others. In contrast, boys, if they are assigned chores at all, would likely be assigned chores that are considered more ‘heavy-duty’ such as helping to fix things or more furniture or others. Without realizing it, parents then begin to introduce their children to gender roles and a form of gender division of labour which carries on when the child grows up and goes out to the larger world. Children also learn from observing the gender roles that they see their parents playing. This then becomes, in their minds the ‘normal’ way of doing things. Gender roles stereotypes are ingrained into children’s minds from a very young age.
Besides learning from what they see, children also learn from what they hear. There are many subtle ways in which parents reinforce gender stereotypes even when they are not actively imposing them on their child. This can be seen in commonly used essentialist statements about gender. Some examples of essentialist statements are, “Boys like sports”, “Girl like princess stuff”, “Girls like dolls”, “Boys like trucks” etc. These statements are based on gender stereotypes of what a boy or girl might like. What this does is that it sends the message across to the child that these are the kind of things that a girl or boy should like. Often, a child who might deviate from this ‘norm’, say for example, a boy who wants to play with princess stuff might be reprimanded or worse still even ridiculed depending on how rigidly his/her parents hold on to gender stereotypes. In the long run, these seemingly harmless ideas of what a boy or girl should like/ should be like can and do have an impact on a child’s self-esteem and sense of self.
Why is Gender Stereotyping a Problem?
Ideas about gender norms for boys and girls lead to various stereotypes. Stereotyping happens all the time and is often actively reinforced by the things that we as adults do and say. What these stereotypes do is that they make it difficult for individuals to be seen as individuals. Instead, stereotypes create a harmful environment where people are seen as a monolithic group with similar characteristics.
When we think about children and the role that adults play in ensuring the safety of children, gender stereotypes actually work against the adults who are responsible for children’s well-being. How so?
For one, the imposition of gender stereotypes sends the message across to children that if they do not conform or fit the ‘norm’ of what a boy or girl should be like, then there is something wrong with them. Imagine growing up thinking that there is something wrong with the way you are. Children are very perceptive. The presence of various agents of gender socialisation to reinforce and enforce gender norms, teaches a child from a young age that if they are ‘different’ then they should hide it or else there will be a price to pay. How will we as adults be able to help children if they aren’t able to be their true selves?
Picture a child, born male, assigned the gender of being a boy but internally he feels that the description of who or what a boy is doesn’t fit him. He doesn’t like trucks, doesn’t like the colour blue, doesn’t enjoy sports and doesn’t like aggressive behaviour. He tries to speak up. He says he likes cheerleading, he enjoys music and he loves cooking. What do you think the reaction towards him would be like? Chances are he might be teased and ridiculed for liking ‘girly’ activities and he might also be told to ‘man up’ (whatever that means). Now, if your first thought upon hearing his story was, ‘Oh my, wonder what happened that he likes girly stuff?’, that thought should help us see how gender stereotypes and ideas can make it difficult for us to see the important issues at hand. In this case, the most important issue here is not the boy’s behaviour/likes but the situation where he is teased and ridiculed (for not being a ‘normal’ boy). Because we have a preconceived idea about how a child should behave, it can actually blind us to the important ways in which we can help and support a child.
Rigid ideas about gender also becomes a problem when we want to help children who are affected by, for example, child sexual abuse. If we hold the common stereotype that girls are usually victims of sexual abuse and boys can’t really be sexually abused, we will miss out on the opportunity to help boys who may be facing sexual abuse. Our perception and values can also become a hindrance when we need to help the child. The way we speak to the child, the way we receive the information from the child, all these will be inevitably influenced by our own preconceived ideas about gender norms. This can influence the way that we are able to help the child in need. Being able to put our personal beliefs and biases aside is very important if we are serious about wanting help our children, if we are serious about creating safe, happy and healthy lives for our children.
The enforcement of gender ideas also makes it easier for children who don’t conform to become vulnerable targets of bullying. When children learn that certain ways of being is unacceptable, they may also take it as license to punish those who exhibit these ‘unacceptable’ behaviours. As adults, we are then setting a culture where children think it is acceptable to reprimand others for being different. There will be no acceptance nor respect for diversity.
Besides limiting our ability to help children, gender roles and stereotypes also limit what children can do. Gender stereotypes that result from rigid ideas of gender roles and norms limits opportunities for both boys and girls, ignores an individual’s capacity and talent, perpetuates unfairness and injustice in society.[vii] These enforced gender roles and stereotype will curtail our children’s ability to be all that they can be and instead they will be forced to conform and be what society and norms dictate they should be.
As adults we have a responsibility to protect children. Enforcing gender norms rigidly disables us from doing that. If we are already judging a child for being ‘different’, we will not be able to hear and see what is happening to them. In turn, we will not be able to be their support system.
Revisiting what we know and understand as acceptable gender norms can be a challenging and difficult process. It involves a lot of unlearning. It involves a lot of questioning the gender socialization process that we ourselves have gone through. Challenging as it may be, this is a process that we must embark on as adults if we are serious about creating a world where our children can truly be themselves. Only when we are able to recognise the role (negative/positive) that gender plays in influencing our decisions will we be able to truly begin a journey of accepting our children as they are, not as we want them to be. Only when we are able to let go of this preconceived ideas of gender will we be able to raise children who have a strong sense of self, who understand who they are and who will be able to make choices which are not restricted by society’s expectations towards them.
thency believes that in order for us to really be able to be there for children, as adults, we need to first embark on a journey of unlearning various harmful stereotypes that we have learnt through gender socialisation.
[i] Excerpt from: The Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients, adopted by the APA Council of Representatives, February 18-20, 2011. https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf
[ii] Female, Male and Intersex at a Glance, https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/sexual-orientation-gender/female-male-intersex
[iii] Excerpt from: The Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients, adopted by the APA Council of Representatives, February 18-20, 2011. https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf
[iv] Reachout.com Accessed from http://au.reachout.com/sex-sexuality-and-gender-explained
[v] Crespi I. (2003). Socialization and Gender Roles Within the Family: A Study on Adolescents and their Parents in Great Britain. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/430955/Socialization_and_gender_roles_within_the_family_a_study_on_adolescents_and_their_parents_in_Great_Britain