I have a 3-year-old daughter and every time we go to a clothes’ or a toy store, I am always amazed to see how deeply gendered marketing for kids is. The ‘For Boys’ aisles feature basketballs, cars, dinosaurs, action figures or messages about being a troublemaker, or a future scientist, all in blue hues. The ‘For Girls’ sections feature dolls, flowers, butterflies, tiny stilettos or bags and messages about being sweet, sassy or a beauty queen. Many people wonder what’s wrong with such a scenario. Aren’t girls born with a preference for pink? Don’t all boys love cars and bikes?
Much of what we assume to be natural or biological is, in fact, a result of socialisation, the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. A recent research undertaken across children between 10-15 years of age across 15 countries including India shows that gender stereotypes are ingrained by age 10. These stereotypes can be harmful in many ways – they impact children’s self-image, how they engage with the world, their career opportunities and their future relationships.
We feel such angst when we hear of child abuse or of girls being killed because of gender bias but we passively accept sexist ideas for our children. The human brain responds deeply to images in making sense of the world. If all images of sport, adventure, outdoor or heroism are made synonymous with boys and images of being kind, caring, nurturing and beautiful with girls, we end up sharing very limited and limiting ideas with our children. As they grow, they start understanding masculinity as being aggressive and femininity as being passive or about surface beauty. So you can see, how the root of many issues in our world such as gender pay gap, sexual harassment, violence against women actually lies in sexist attitudes that we support in our everyday life.
We pay an emotional cost for not challenging gender stereotypes enough. From nail art kits as gifts to birthday parties with a make-up corner, the idea that girls need to focus on their outward appearance starts early. The hyper-sexual images in media reinforce girls’ growing understanding of themselves as external objects, whose primary value is in surface beauty. As a result, they face anxiety, poor self-esteem and body-shame issues. Boys, on the other hand, are constantly told to ‘be tough’, a message that correlates with higher risk-taking and health issues. They are likelier to engage in substance abuse, binge drinking or physical violence because of this. Emotions are seen as a sign of weakness among boys and by not allowing them to express their feelings freely, we end up alienating boys as a society.
We pay an economic cost for not stemming gender bias early-on. Gender discrimination is estimated to cost the global economy up to $12 trillion annually in wasted potential. It limits our children’s career aspirations leading to waste of talent and productivity. We read every day about the gender gap in nearly every context from science to sports, music festivals to Hollywood. We are told that it could take more than 200 years to close the gender gap in some of the STEMM fields (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Medicine) and at the current rate, it would take 100 years for women to gain equality.
Yet we wonder what the big deal about gender stereotypes is.
Last year, I joined hands with my old college friend Reema to create Candidly, a platform to drive candid conversations on issues of gender, sexuality and media and their influence on children and young adults. We have so far conducted on-ground workshops on abuse awareness, comprehensive sexuality education, body safety, produced digital content and built candid discussions on these subjects.
I felt the time had come to stop passively hoping for change and challenging these gender stereotypes and outdated attitudes. Hence was born EqualiTee, our range of gender-cool merchandise that challenges flawed stereotypes we inherited and lets our little boys and girls be whoever they wish to be. Designed in five themes – Activity, Opportunity, Creativity, Sensitivity and Equality, the collection is aimed at children to show them an expansive world, of imagination, creativity and free expression, with no access denied for being a girl or a boy.
We have started small but we believe that more such small efforts can help catalyze big change. Challenging gender stereotypes is not about reversing roles between two genders nor is about eliminating differences between boys and girls. It is about the equal opportunity for play, self-expression and life choices for all irrespective of their gender.
Our belief, like we saw in our film is that –
Boys and Girls
But Always Equal