Gender stereotyping is seeping into our offspring, on and off the pitch, says Becky Dickinson
Since having a daughter, I have reluctantly conceded that girls may be slightly more genetically predisposed to certain things than boys. My daughter, Lucia, three, has an obsession with dolls that my son, Joe, five, never displayed – and it’s not because I’ve encouraged her to play with them, it’s just the way it’s turned out.
My daughter also has a worrying inclination for pink, which I do my best to suppress because I want to avoid encouraging stereotyped notions about boys and girls. Apparently I’m not alone there, with the majority of parents rebelling against gender-specific colours for their children’s clothes. A recent survey by the childrenswear subscription service, Box Upon a Time (boxuponatime.co.uk), showed that a staggering 82% of parents like blue clothing on girls and 47% like pink on boys.
In response to these findings Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of Fundamentally Children, an organisation dedicated to helping children develop skills through play, says, “Studies show that adults treat children differently when they’re dressed in gender-stereotyped clothing, so the move towards less gender-stereotyping in clothes and other areas of children’s lives is to be welcomed”.
In a sea of muddy five year olds, there was only one girl on the pitch
Like most kids, Joe and Lucia have energy to burn, and like most mums I’m happy for them to burn it by any available means (preferably cheap and harmless ones). So this term, Joe joined the football club at his school. And like a proper soccer mum I went along to support him. Joe may not be a budding David Beckham – he wore his shin pads outside his socks and I’m not sure he knew which goal he was supposed to be aiming at – but he loved it and now wants to play every week, as long as I bring enough snacks.
The only disappointment was that in a sea of muddy five year olds, there was only one girl on the pitch. I naively assumed things had progressed since my own less-than-enlightened school days, when boys played football and girls played recorder. Apparently not.
I didn’t sign Joe up to football because he’s a boy. And if he shows any flair for it, I certainly won’t put it down to the balls between his legs. I signed him up because kids need fresh air and exercise. I’m not a football fan and don’t support a team. But if an activity helps develop healthy, confident and happy kids who know how to play as part of a team, I’m a fan.
So why aren’t girls benefiting from these opportunities too? Because Hello Kitty don’t make football kits? Despite the success of the England women’s national football team – a recent fixture at Wembley saw the women’s team sell more tickets than their male counterparts for the first time – most of us couldn’t even name a famous female footballer? Presumably, there would be an uproar if schools were to send girls to needlework classes, and boys to woodwork lessons, so why is it acceptable to herd girls and boys into different sports?
Yet by the time sport separation happens much of the damage has already been done. The seeds of stereotype have already been sown and are often in full bloom. I am amazed at the number of mums who pack their pre-school daughters off to ballet lessons, simply because they’re girls. I don’t dispute that ballet has value as an art form and discipline, what disturbs me are all the inextricable connotations concerning appearance, dressing up and conforming to a certain (potentially dangerous) body type. From the moment they can pick up a hairbrush, girls are drip-fed messages about what it is to be a girl – that is, clean and pink and pretty. This has little to do with genetic make-up, and everything to do with social shackles and adult attitudes.
Girls may be allowed to wear trousers to school, but the real world is far from a level playing field
At my son’s after-school football club, girls are as welcome to join as boys. Yet they don’t. I asked Joe why not. “Because girls don’t like getting dirty,” he replied. Sadly, at five years old, I think he may be unwittingly close to the mark.
What’s the point of equal opportunities, and allowing girls to join football clubs, if they are then shooed off to ballet without further question? And how many girls carry on with ballet past primary school, compared to the number of boys that still play football in their twenties and beyond?
Of course, not all girls will enjoy football, just as it won’t appeal to all boys, but we owe it to our daughters to let them find out for themselves.
Girls may be allowed to wear trousers to school, but the real world is far from a level playing field. Yes, we have a lot to thank feminism for, but women still have much to fight against – body issues, domestic abuse and the gender pay gap for starters.
I’m not suggesting that getting five-year-old girls onto the football pitch will redress all these issues, but it may be a micro step in the right direction. It may help girls realise that ‘being pretty’ isn’t what it’s all about. It may give them the confidence to realise they can be as good as the boys in other areas of life too. And it may help boys grow into men who realise the same.
Fortunately, Lucia, despite her penchant for pink, is showing promise. “When I’m big, I want to play football,” she said, after watching her brother slide around in the mud. I just hope she feels the same way in a few years’ time. And I hope she shows the boys how to do it. One thing’s for sure, I won’t be buying her a pink tutu – not unless she wants to wear it on the pitch.