Are women fighting against stereotypes or internalising them? (1/2)

In society, when we talk about « equality » between men and women, we often think about salaries, careers, or who does the household chores. We don’t however talk so much about equality amongst children when it comes to play, cultural activities and sports. However, the way that children are educated has a lot of influence on the way that gender representations are passed on. Such is evident in the latest film by Guillaume Gallienne « Les Garçons et Guillaume à table! » In cinemas 20th November 2013.

Since female emancipation, people, and women in particular, have continued to fight the injustices of gender relations.

However, stereotypes still exist in society, and are ingrained from a very young age. How can this be explained? This question was asked in a survey conducted in October 2013 on 1284 women by Womenology for (1) What kind of stereotypes still exist in family education? Do mums educate girls and boys in the same way? Why do boys rarely play with dolls?

Although the fight for equality and equity can be seen everywhere today no matter who you are (men/ women, heterosexual/ homosexual, etc…), the reality is still far from this aspiration. According to the Womenology survey conducted in October 2013, only 38% of women believe that equality between men and women « is a reality. » In fact, 48% of the sample believe that equality is a « utopia » and 25% claim it is « nonsense. » Mums are even more cynical. 52% of the mums surveyed consider equality a « utopia, » compared to 38% of women with no children. This dubious attitude to equality can be explained partly by the fact that society is very slow to change, and this discourages women.

« I think stereotypes do still exist. Society just needs to evolve, but it is evolving slowly. » (Melissa , 34 )

According the study, only 2% of participants believe there is no difference between boys and girls. 10% of the women surveyed believe that certain differences are innate and still hold onto these gender differences.

« You’re either female or male in your soul(…)Boys are more abrupt in the way they do things, they are violent, unlike girls. » (Melissa, 34) « It is innate, I was a tomboy and my daughter is a total princess. »(Clara, 32)

Stereotypes are a way to reassure women. « Stereotypes and prejudices fulfill a function,” remarks Charles Stangor, Professor of Psychology. “People use them because they help to make sense of the world around them, feel good about themselves and be accepted by others. » (2)

48% of women interviewed by Womenology believe that the differences between boys and girls are « a mixture of innate and acquired. » Nevertheless, participants are highly aware of the influence of family education on children. In fact, 39% of women say that differences between girls and boys are « the product of education. »

« It depends on what children see at home. They then compare that with what happens at school and with friends but initially it comes from home. » (Melissa, 34)

Interestingly, women who don’t have children tend to attach more importance to the influence of education than mums. 44% of them believe gender differences are the product of education compared with 35% of mothers who think the same.

Children contribute to the unfair division of household tasks in couples

The distribution of parental tasks is still strongly influenced by tradition.

« At home it’s usually me who takes care of everything to do with education, particularly homework, because I’m more patient than my partner. (…) He picks them up from school, plays with them, he’ll play unisex games with them with more ease than I could. I take care of the educational part, I cook with my daughters, and we do the housework. » (Martine, 47)

46% of mums claim that they help their children with their homework (compared with only 4% of mothers who say their partner is responsible for the task). Similarly, 56% of mothers reported that they look after their children when they are sick (vs 2% of women whose partners take responsibility). Some of the women interviewed explained that the arrival of a baby compromises the priorities and egalitarian values in couples.

« After giving birth, women no longer think the same as they did 10  ago. (…) They almost want to stop everything to take care of their children, whereas men are more withdrawn, they carry on their lives as before. » (Melissa, 34)

Despite the sometimes contradictory practices and statements on the principles of equality, gender boundaries are moving. This is evident through the responses that women gave regarding formerly « masculine » traits. Women believe that competitiveness (72%) and ambition (78%) are attributed to both boys and girls. In the same way, some traditionally “feminine” personality traits, such as sensitivity and fragility, are now seen as unisex. In fact, women think that sensitivity (65%) and fragility (67%) are now completely mixed qualities.

Women are fighting against the stereotypes they’ve grown up with

Women are now involved in the fight against stereotypes which undervalue them.

« I am shocked to see that we’re still living in a world of stereotypes; pink for girls, blue for boys » (Estelle, 42)

Mothers are encouraging their daughters to worship super heroines rather than super heroes, and they are trying to educate their children about certain prejudices by encouraging girls to play football. As parents, women are determined to fight against stereotypes.

« Many parents tend to mirror stereotypes and to perpetrate them. This has a strong influence on a lot of children. The way children are educated at home has a fundamental role if we want to move forward. » (Estelle, 42)

The desire to see change in society is sometimes jeopardized by an attachment to the past. Women feel a sort of nostalgia about the past (when they were children), even about times where there were very clear differences between men and women.

« Young men like to be trendier these days. But I think that takes away gender differences. We had different ideas when we were young; we liked a boy to be a boy. » (Sophie, 35)

Physical differences justify behavior differences

The body seems to be responsible for differences between sexes. Sometimes physical differences even create stereotypes. « Strength » still appears strongly attributed to « mainly boys, » as voted by 38% of women- only 53% of women agree that strength is a mixed characteristic. When it comes to girls, characteristics such as kindness- a symbol of motherhood and care- marks the feminine « gender. » Physiological differences between men and women cause the perception of gender stereotypes strengthen.

« I cuddle a lot because I always want to cuddle my babies, it is true that dads are less cuddly » (Sophie, 35)

48% of women attribute « kindness » to « girls mainly, » compared to 47% who believe it is a mixed characteristic. « The social aspect is important: stereotypes characterize the “other” group- the outgroup- rather than « our » group or “ingroup, » says Claudie Bert, journalist specialising in human sciences. « If we define ourselves as French, everyone else is strange. For men, women thus become strangers, etc. Traits we associate with these “other” groups help us to reinforce our own social identity, emphasizing ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them.’” (3)

« Women are different to men. I’m saying this as a feminist. (…) I would like to say there aren’t any differences but there are loads, in the way they see things and deal with things.” (Melissa, 34)

Women are somewhat holding on to gender differences and this reinforces their own identity.

« Differences still exist because we’re not the same. Clearly we’re not physically the same so there’s one. (…) Certain differences are disappearing in areas such as work for example but others do still exist.” (Melissa , 34)

When it comes to the order of factors which influence stereotypes in society (i.e. pink for girls, blue for boys), family comes out on top. In fact, 88% of participants “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that family is responsible for gender stereotypes.

« Parents always worry that their children will be insulted (…) Children are sometimes more open than their mums (…) I think parents always prioritise their children and therefore have difficulty getting them out of their mindset.” (Estelle, 42)

Women vote for brands in second place with 84% of the vote, followed by the media with 73%

« I think a lot of stereotypes come from TV, I found that most children are influenced by stereotypes which have come from Disney heroes, Selena Gomez, that kind of thing (…) I understand that children are very influenced by these kind of programs. » (Estelle, 42)

« Children amongst themselves » and school were not spared responsibility and were singled out by 58% and 56% of women respectively. Finally, religion appears to be irrelevant for 63% of women who believe it has no influence.

What we need to remember about this ranking is the multitude of influential factors, which all partly explain the persistence of stereotypes. Indeed, even if parents raise their children with egalitarian values, school, brands or the media will convey the opposite values, and vice versa. This analysis highlights the need for a comprehensive policy on equality awareness, from parents to teachers, and even the media and brands.

When it comes to sports and cultural activities for children, two types of activities were identified: mixed activities and strongly « gendered » activities. On the one hand, we are seeing the gap between boys and girls closing, in that women now consider certain, once gendered activities to be mixed i.e. sport (72%), music (95%), cooking (65%). On the other hand, gender differences still firmly exist. For example, according to 53% of women, video games are « mainly for boys, » while fashion and dance are exclusively girls’ hobbies according to 57% and 59% of participants respectively.

The promotion of stereotypes within the family is shown by the choice of children’s toys which carry many meanings. 64% of mums with daughters reported that if they had a son, they would buy him a doll. However, in reality, only 38% of women with sons have already bought them a doll.

As for girls, 87% of women with sons say that if they had a daughter, they would buy her a construction toy. This figure is reflected in reality as 87% of mothers with daughters have already bought them a construction toy. How can we explain this gap? Are boys and girls equal when it comes to choosing games and toys?

« (Toys) bring us back to the issue of maintaining and changing relationships between men and women in society. Toys represent gender division by depicting social roles (according to a model by sociologist Talcott Parsons which depicts the female ‘homemaker’ and the male ‘working man’),” explains sociologist Sandrine Vincent, “they emphasize  the traditional or ‘natural’  image of the man who takes care of activities outside the home, and the woman who takes care of domestic tasks and mothering roles. » (6)

Boys aren’t allowed “girl” toys

There is a certain inequality amongst children. While girls can play with traditionally “boy” toys, boys can’t play with traditionally “girl” toys such as dolls.

« When girls play with boys it’s not a surprise, they (children) don’t think anything of it. When it’s the other way round, straight away there are stereotypes which make people think it’s strange.” (Sophie, 35)

As outlined by Sandrine Vincent, « rules are less strict for girls than they are for boys. Judging by the way toys are assigned a gender, girls can play with ‘boy’ toys more often than a boy can play with ‘girl’ toys. Girls are more likely to want to play with masculine toys, while mums are more likely than fathers to give their sons toys aimed at girls (although this is quite rare). » (6)

A pink t-shirt but not pink trousers for boys

Equality has its limits and certain things, such as male and female physical appearances aren’t changing. 61% of women with sons have bought them a pink t-shirt, whereas only 5% have bought pink trousers. Interestingly, these preconceptions about boys’ appearance seem only to develop when women become mothers, because 26% of women without children say they would buy a boy pink trousers.

Short hair is acceptable for girls

When it comes to how girls look, it’s a different story. Girls have more freedom to play with gender norms. 50% of mothers with daughters said that their daughter has had their hair cut short. In fact, 66% of mothers think that short hair is as pretty as long hair for a little girl.

Certain mothers find it difficult not to pass on stereotypes to their daughters

The greater freedom that little girls have is reflected in the way that roles are divided in couples. Women are often still the main buyers when it comes to toys and children’s clothes. They tend to educate their daughters more about equality to make sure that they take a different path to their own.

« There are some mums who don’t mind buying an iron for their little boys, but I remember when I was little I was given one, and now I try to stop my daughter from getting an iron, isn’t that stupid? But I don’t want her to be in a housewife’s mindset just because she’s a girl. » (Sophie, 35)

As Sandrine Vincent explains, « mothers with a higher level of education are less attached to gender patterns. It is in the popular media that we see the most conformity, while the most educated mothers distance themselves from the gender patterns that toys create. » (6)

« I am probably a little excessive, I don’t want my daughter to play with too many ‘girly’ toys. When she says- oh mum, I really want this- and it’s something girly, I try to talk her out of it (..) then I explain that just because we’re girls it doesn’t mean we can’t play football, and just because we’re girls doesn’t mean we have to do housework. » (Estelle, 42)

Why are mums stricter when it comes to boys’ behaviour? The main reason is « fear that other children will tease them. » 84% of the women surveyed agree with parents who don’t dress their son in pink in order to avoid ridicule.

« I wouldn’t dress my son in pink if I had one. I did buy my husband a pink polo shirt, and even for a little boy when they’re really little, we can dress them in quite girly colours. But at school, if you put a little boy in something really colourful, he’ll be teased for sure. » (Sophie, 35)

Similarly, Sébastien Sihr, Secretary General of the primary school teachers’ union (SNUipp) states that « school is a place where stereotypes are long established. » He recalls that « fag » is the most common playground insult. (4)

« Well, girls play more with boys’ toys than boys do with girls’ toys, because if they do, they risk being teased »(Estelle, 42)

In second place, cited by 69% of women, come « aesthetic reasons. » Finally, 21% of women « completely agree » or « somewhat agree » with parents who wouldn’t dress their son in pink out of « fear of influencing their child/ children’s sexuality. » In a traditionally patriarchal and « hetero-centred » society, the « fantasy » of influencing a child’s homosexuality is still very present. Women’s remarks in the survey were particularly enlightening on this.

« If I had a boy, I’m pretty traditional, so I can’t see myself buying him a doll, unless of course he asked me for one, but I guess I would want to say no, (…). I’d be a bit like dads are because I think if they get used to it when they’re young, by telling them that they can play with the doll, it’s a risk. If he took it to school, I wouldn’t want him to get teased by his classmates because they can be very mean to each other. So if I bought him one, I would tell him not to take it to school. He’d be teased. » (Sophie, 35)

Daniel Borillo, a professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre and author of Homophobia (PUF, 2000) defines this phenomenon as ‘cognitive homophobia:’ « this is a way to educate men about homophobia. In the construction of masculine identity, homophobia is a key focus. Boys (should not) express their feelings, they (should not) act like girls (…). » (5) According to the researcher, homophobia comes from the fear of mixing genders. « It is a general form of hostility concerning the adoption of behaviour associated to the opposite sex. Discrimination will focus more on gender (masculine/ feminine) that sexuality. This homophobia, which is actually a form of gender violence, affects the « feminine » man or « masculine » woman who doesn’t completely fit the expectations of his or her gender. »(5)

The Womenology study highlights the fact that boys grow up with a more stringent idea of what it is to be ‘normal’ than girls. By asking women why they wouldn’t dress their son in pink trousers, or give their daughter a short hair cut, we were given an insight into the reasons for this phenomenon.  The answers highlighted an important point. While 21% of women gave « fear of influencing their child/ children’s sexuality » as a reason to justify not dressing a boy in pink trousers, only 6% gave the same reason for not opting for short hair for girls.

Although one in two women is reportedly comfortable about homosexuality (whether it be male or female), when asked: « If the hero/ princess in a movie were gay/ lesbian » only 44% and 43% respectively said they would find this “normal.” The reality is not so egalitarian (as suggested by psychiatrist Stéphane Clerget).

It is usually the father, i.e. the masculine influence in a family, who is reluctant to buy a doll for a boy. It is as if he wants to ensure the masculinity in the family. Did the women we met blame the fathers in order to take the blame off themselves, or it this actually the case? Their words help particularly to work out what it really means to “be a man” these days.

« No, I don’t think my partner would want our son to play with a doll. Maybe if they were very young it wouldn’t bother him too much because he’d probably just say it was just something new to discover, I don’t know. But any older, I don’t think my partner would really appreciate our son playing with dolls. » (Martine, 47)

Through this study, Womenology aimed to demonstrate the persistence of stereotypes and the way they are passed on in families.  A particular focus was placed on the ambivalence shown by mums concerning equality. While they are very involved in the fight against inequality in the professional world, and conscious of the role parents have in passing on stereotypes, they still hold onto certain gender differences. For example, taking pride and care in one’s appearance is still considered feminine, even by women themselves. In fact, although mothers make sure to educate their daughters about equality, boys and girls are not equal when it comes to their toys. The number and variety of social factors such as school, family, the media, etc., reinforce the persistence of stereotypes. These stereotypes may then re-emerge on numerous occasions in children’s lives. A mother’s main focus when raising her children is what children want. In fact, mums claim they rely strongly on their children’s needs and wishes.

« We work it out by ourselves, using what we see around us, and I think children need to develop their own personalities (…) if my daughter wants a boy’s toy, I’ll buy it. » (Sophie, 35)

The value attributed to children’s needs and desires should be taken into consideration when looking at equality awareness policies. Such policies should be put in place very early at school in order to develop critical thinking in young people who make up the future of change.

(1) Methodology: Qualitative Pre-survey: 4 hour roundtable discussion and telephone interviews with seven mothers aged 31-47 and their children (4-10)- duration: 4h- respondents from: Paris and suburbs- October 2013. Quantitative survey released 30th October- 12th November- 631 respondents
(2) C. Stangor (Eds.), Stereotypes and Prejudice: Essential Readings, Psychology Press, 2000
(3) Humanities Magazine, Les stéréotypes
(4) 2013
(5) Interview with Daniel Borrillo, Lawyer, lecturer at the University of Paris X-Nanterre , associate researcher at Cersa (Centre for Studies and Research of Administrative Sciences). His publications include Homophobia, « What do I know? » 2000, he led the collective Lutter movement against discrimination, La Découverte, 2003, and he helped work on the Dictionary of Homophobia, Louis-Georges Tin (ed.), Puf, 2003.
(6) Sandrine Vincent, Toys which hide their games, Humanities Magazine- Sandrine Vincent is a sociologist and author of The Toy and its social implications, La Dispute, 2001.
(7) J-C. Kaufmann, Domestic frame, Nathan, 1992 (p.233) golden goose outlet

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