Should we let boys be boys and girls be girls?

There’s been a lot in the UK news in recent weeks about gender stereotyping, and the impact it is having on children. In a recent example, a well-known shoe retailer was criticised for calling a line of its girl’s school shoes ‘Dolly Babe’, whilst the equivalent boy range was called ‘Leader’. The Guardian newspaper who commented on this also noted that the girl’s version contained pink inserts with hearts, whilst the boy’s version had a blue insert with footballs.

These subtle (or not so subtle) messages have always been around and not just in the UK. I shared this story when I was delivering diversity training in India, and one of the participants shared a story about her one year-old son. He had seen a shiny bracelet, and like many kids that age, wanted to play with it. Another mother saw this and said to the infant – ‘Are you a little girl?’ and the little boy immediately dropped it. Research shows that infants as young as three are learning gender stereotypes from their environment. Should a boy like a doll? Should a girl want to play with trucks? Can a boy be a nurse? There’s no doubt that gender stereotypes (and others) have had a role to play in the reality that we have created in organisations.

The recent media coverage shows that we are becoming much more attuned to gender stereotyping. Like me, you may have seen a number of posts on social media from parents who have committed to raising their kids without stereotyping. A major retailer in the UK added to this by launching gender neutral clothing – to mixed responses. So what is the answer? Should we be raising gender neutral children?

In my opinion – no. There needs to be a balance. Sharing aspects of our identity with others is an important part of our development. Research in the last decade is increasingly showing that having a common identity with others is critical for our self-esteem, developing social skills and well-being. Where social identities (gender or otherwise) become a problem is when people feel that they have to follow the dominant groups (e.g. only boys can play football), or when identities such as gender become associated with certain capabilities or professions. This only serves to close doors and put people into boxes which limits potential.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts with me @PK_JonathanT on Twitter.

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