The Gender Agenda: is it possible to raise children free of sexist stereotypes?

A new book charts the many subtle ways boys and girls are treated differently.

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There are two schools of thought regarding gender-neutral parenting. The first says you can’t do it. The second says you can’t do it, either, but you might as well die trying.

There are variations on this, of course. There’s “look, I tried it but found my daughter to be magically hardwired to like glitter unicorns and my son to like machine guns, so there’s nothing I can do about it”. Then there’s “I’m raising my son in a man-cave because I read something about testosterone, spatial rotation and monkeys – or was it rats? - written in 1997 and you can’t argue with science”. There’s also “none shall ever know the sex of my child and I’ll change their nappies with my eyes closed, avoiding unconscious bias even if it means spreading poo everywhere”.

All of these options have their pros and cons, although personally I find the defeatist ones most tempting. Gender-neutral parenting is gardening in a gale; whatever your good intentions,  the environment is against you. And as soon as you slip up there will then be people around you (elderly uncles, usually) who sweep in to inform you that “boys will be boys” (an early precursor to “Brexit means Brexit”, two phrases as destructive as they are utterly meaningless). If only there was a way of telling them “but I knew this would happen! And I’d do it again, dammit! THIS DOESN’T MEAN I’M WRONG!”

Thankfully Ros Ball and James Millar, who run the @GenderDiary twitter account, have written a book that just might help. Parents of one girl and one boy, the pair have been keeping a record of discrepancies in how their children are treated since 2012. The Gender Agenda, published on Friday, is part testimony, part how-to guide for any parent thinking of taking on that big, bad pink/blue world out there.

As with the Twitter account, the book uses a “gender anonymous” voice, keeping the reader in the dark about whether they are dealing with a male or female author (this ambiguity being one of the reasons the pair feel their social media has been less subject to the trolling). I asked them about their project and received the following – strictly gender neutral! – responses.

You cite There’s A Good Girl – Marianne Grabrucker’s 1988 account of the gender stereotyping experienced while raising her daughter – as the main inspiration for @GenderDiary and The Gender Agenda. Much has changed since the time Grabrucker was writing. Why do you think there is still a need for parents to provide evidence that gender stereotyping exists?

Gender stereotyping still 100% exists! The problem is it’s more subtle and that’s why we had to write the book to prove it.

One of Marianne’s early diary entries is when her daughter is 6 days old. Marianne and her husband bump in to an acquaintance, who on finding out they’ve had a girl says “Well congratulations all the same old chap!” Marianne feels hurt and humiliated, “it’s as though my daughter were nothing”. At that time it was still OK to express disappointment that a baby was a girl.

These days we’re into the third wave of feminism (or 4th or 5th depending on how you count these things) and it’s about much more subtle (and often disregarded) cultural and societal barriers that are imposed on men and women. You can see it in the huge popularity of Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism project. Until she gave women a space to share how unequal their experiences were many people might have told you – we’ve done it, we have equality. As long as children still see boys and girls treated differently they will take it as read that boys and girls are different and that puts limits on their lives and ambitions.

I have three boys, who are all different in temperament and interests, yet people still manage to characterise each of them as “typical” for their sex. If both of your children had been the same sex, do you think Gender Diary would have happened?

No it wouldn’t have happened. Or at least not in the form that it came about. Having children of different sex meant we could make the comparison between the ways they were treated.

We do wonder if we’d had two boys how things might have been different because we don’t exclude ourselves from the gender policing – we can be guilty of it too. One of the big lessons we’ve learned from the project is how the gendering of boys is so destructive to them and consequently women and girls - and to both their ambitions and outlooks. The culture of toxic masculinity kicks in from quite a young age making it far harder to raise a feminist son than a feminist daughter and we need everyone to get on board with feminism to achieve a genuine equality not just a legal one. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, we’ve started to raise our daughters like sons, now we must be brave enough to raise our sons like daughters.

One of the most interesting – but also worrying – aspects of the diary is the way in which you find people making up excuses for literally anything being associated with being a boy or a girl. Do you think people notice they are doing this?

Folk often don’t realise they are doing it. But why would they? We are all products of the culture in which we are raised. You don’t need to google too hard to find reports of the various experiments carried out over the years that show people alter their behaviour towards the same baby depending on whether they are told it’s a boy or a girl.

Sometimes it can be obvious what’s happening. Do you think it’s always useful to make people aware of what they’re doing, or do you risk pushback?

We’ve done a bit of both in terms of speaking up – it’s been an experiment really. In an ideal world we’d want to make people aware. But yes you absolutely risk pushback. Gender is a core part of most people’s identity and parenting is similarly fundamental. No-one wants to hear the suggestion they are somehow coming up short as a parent. And we’ve never been about criticising others, it’s always been about trying to expand people’s awareness of their own and other’s behaviour. Everyone’s welcome to then make their own call on how they react to that but it’s hard to believe most parents would actually sign up for putting limits on their kids’ lives.

When we do presentations around the Gender Diary/Gender Agenda James talks about how he was more rabid in the early days and would challenge the dads he played football with – most noticeably one who had a son and daughter and made reference to "throwing like a girl" – but over time the same dads became less enthusiastic in their invites to the pub after football. If you’re not at the table then you can’t challenge the culture at all.

One theme throughout your book is that it may be harder for boys to associate with “girl” things (seen as a demotion) than girls with “boy” things (by contrast, a promotion). Do you think we need a different approach in supporting gender non-conformity in boys compared to girls? Your son was very young when you started the diary – as he’s got older, have you found the challenges very different to those facing your daughter? 

It’s complicated. It’s that thing of whether you should have "books for boys" because that gets boys reading and "science kits for girls" in pink boxes because that gets them interested in STEM. Ros calls this "appeasement". It’s the balance between trying to bend the world to be how you want it to be and dealing with the world as it is. We’re not immune to pragmatism but it often comes at a cost.

We’ve found explaining the benefits of feminism to a girl is fairly straightforward – you get to do everything a man can do. Bingo. It doesn’t work so easily the other way round because society is so down on all things feminine that a boy quite understandably wonders what’s the benefit. We can bring up feminist daughters until the cows come home but if we don’t crack doing the same thing with our sons then those daughters are going to continue to live in a tediously sexist world.

You’re open about the fact you think gender-neutral parenting isn’t a possibility. I’d agree. Nonetheless, it can be difficult to strike the balance between challenging stereotypes and wanting to help your child adapt to the world so that they can be happy in the here and now. Have you ever found yourself policing gender in a way you regret, or wish you’d done differently?

Yes, all the time. Finding that balance between challenging stereotypes and dealing with your own discomfort is constant.

I once stopped my oldest son wearing a dress to school for World Book Day out of fear that he’d be made fun of; his younger brother has since done this several times, with no problems…

There’s examples in the book of things where we’ve come up short. There’s an entry in the diary where our son had hairclips in his hair. When our daughter said "they’re not for him" Ros assumed it was the hairclips she was referring to when in fact it was something he was holding. Ros then took the hairclips out when she left the house, something she wouldn’t have done for our daughter.

But parent shouldn’t beat themselves up about not being perfect. We probably did do that a bit to ourselves in the early days but the more we realised what we were up against in society, culture and capitalism the more slack we cut ourselves. What’s more important here is the fact that you and we both do this because we think we need to protect our sons/daughters from being teased or bullied, and we get that. That’s totally understandable, but it does perpetuate the problem if adults enforce kids to conform because of the fear of other people’s views.

There’s an LR Knost quote that we return to time and time again that helps us with that dilemma: “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”

As your children move away from toys and CBeebies there will be whole new areas of gendered nonsense to confront – would you be interested in curating resources for that?

Now the kids are that bit older we feel it’s time to leave them alone in terms of projects – we’ve always kept them anonymous and don’t want them to be subject to any scrutiny they don’t want. Hopefully when they are teenagers in a few years they’ll make informed choices and maybe we’ll all be able to work together on a project! We’d expect that just as early years are crucial when it comes to gender stereotypes and identity the teenage years will be too.

We’ll continue to use the @GenderDiary Twitter feed for curating resources and sharing information and supporting the brilliant Let Toys be Toys campaign. We’d like to update our feminist lists of books and films for kids on a regular basis as there’s a lot of great new stuff out there and we’ll get our twitter followers involved in that as always.

Things have been changing since you started the diary in 2012. If you could name one thing, what do you think is the best battle won in recent years in terms of challenging gender stereotyping affecting young children? And what could we learn from it?

Shared Parental Leave. It’s not perfect, but now it’s here it’s not going to be undone and hopefully it can be improved and upgraded over time. The big lesson from it is that it gives parents the chance to model the alternative. A bit like we said at the beginning. The law has been changed but that’s only half the battle. Now the culture has to change. The more parents that split the childcare in those very early days the more chance that both parents remain very engaged in bringing up their children. If kids see more men on the school gates, more women in visible high status positions you’ve got to hope that ideas around what each gender can and should do will melt a little.

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There’s no doubting the process Miller and Ball have pursued is slow (I have visions of my own sons reaching adulthood and writing an exposé of the absurdities of progressive parenting – an Oranges Bloody Well Are The Only Fruit, as it were). Then again, if the alternative is accepting the status quo, what else can we do?

As The Gender Agenda shows, we’re not imagining unequal treatment. It’s there, all around us. Nonetheless, change is possible. Of course, in the meantime you may still end up with a son made of slugs, snails and puppy dogs’ tails, a daughter made of sugar and spice. Just remember: it doesn’t mean you’re wrong!

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.