It seems at the moment that everywhere you look there are debates on the issue of gender boundaries categories for children’s toys – challenges of Lego’s recent addition of ‘girl’s’ Lego, comments on how some stores layout their merchandise or complaints from authors regarding how book covers try to suggest which gender of child ‘should’ read their books.
Quite rightly so, a lot of people would say. But why does it matter so much? Some people might think that ‘making a fuss’ over something like this is overkill, but the answer is it really does matter.
Now don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that we cannot admit men and women/girls and boys are different. As Jenny Baker says in her excellent book ‘Equals’:
“We’re clearly different in lots of ways. We have different body parts, grow hair in different places and the difference in our chromosomes is reproduced in every cell of our bodies. In almost all sports, whether it’s running, cycling , swimming or jumping, men are consistently faster than women: they jump higher, lift heavier weights, throw further and score more. That pattern of men and women achieving differently is repeated in lots of different spheres of life. How can we say that women and men are equal?”
There are clearly differences between men and women, particularly if you look at physical – that is ‘body’ factors. There have also been argued to be cognitive – that is brain – differences between males and females as well, although this remains a hotly controversial topic. But two vitally important facts need to be emphasised.
The first is that although there are some differences, there are a lot more ways in which we are NOT different. This is particularly true if you consider that differences claimed in scientific research look at averages – the statistical centre of natural variation along any given skill/measure. Taking that natural variation into account there is an awful lot of overlap – plenty of women who do not demonstrate the more classically ‘female’ trends; plenty of men who find that they identify with some ‘female’ stereotypes.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the fact is that equality does not need to assume that there are no differences. Quoting Jenny Baker again, she says:
“Equality is the belief that all people have the same value, regardless of any other defining characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and age… equality is about treating people fairly without prejudice or assumptions and it’s the essential foundation on which all fruitful relationships are built. Equality particularly when we’re talking about women and men, is about being free to choose the direction your life takes and having the encouragement and opportunities to enact that choice, rather than being constrained by stereotypes or cultural convention. It’s about everyone being able to flourish.”
So why do these gender stereotypes matter so much? Why not create brands and toys which are pink and feature more classically ‘female’ play types like cooking, fashion or looking after babies? Why not separate ‘boys’ from ‘girls’ toys in stores and supermarkets? Why not brand and design books according to which gender is more likely to want to buy them?
There are lots of answers to this, but one compelling one lies in the psychology of humans. One thing that cannot be denied about humans is how we prefer to simplify the world by making generalisations. One way we display this is in our tendency to form ‘groups’ in our minds for people. We tend to classify these groups fairly simply – as either ‘in-group’ (that is, of the same group as us) or ‘out-group’. You can see this in all kinds of things – social class stereotypes, our love of forming and supporting specific football teams, what newspaper we read – it happens all over our society.
A series of studies both historical and more recent demonstrate how easy it is to induce people to form these kinds of group identities. Perhaps the most famous, called the robbers cave experiment, took a bunch of 11 year old body on a summer camp in the USA. When these kids arrived, they were randomly allocated to one of two groups. At first on camp, simple steps were taken to enforce these group identifies. Each group didn’t know the other existed, but they ate together, took part in activities and chose group names and emblems. Its not that surprising that the kids really took on this group thing and started to share a real sense of group ‘togetherness’.
What’s interesting about this experiment is what happened next. When the camp organisers revealed the existence of the ‘other’ group, what developed was almost immediate hostility – mainly in the groups calling each other names. Once the groups then started to compete against each other this inter group rivalry got more significant. When one group eventually won the ‘camp cup’ this sense of superiority was marked and the hostility increased. It wasn’t long before the groups refused to even eat in the same room as each other.
This famous study then began to explore how best to break down this inter group hostility. But the reason I’m talking about it now is to look at what happens when we strengthen group identity and draw attention to or exaggerate perceived or real differences between two groups. Very quickly a sense of hierarchy develops, particularly if one group, for whatever reason, can be perceived as ‘weaker’. Once that sense of hierarchy is there, it grows. The outcome of this can be very powerful – more than once psychologists, researchers and even school teachers have attempted repeats on different scales of this kind of experiment, and had to interrupt their plans because the degree of hostility was alarming and unexpected.
There are differences between men and women. But the more we exaggerate these by slipping into stereotypical shorthand in order to simplify our world, the more we risk building an ‘in-group’ mentality that can foster and encourage feelings of hostility, negative behaviour and unhelpful beliefs about the ‘other’ group. The more we teach people – however implicitly – that boys are totally different from girls, the greater the chance then members of one group will start to foster and justify cynical or unpleasant beliefs and behaviours toward the other – and thanks to the historical discrimination against women it is usually this group that comes off the worst.
There’s plenty of evidence for this happening. Take some of the classically quoted stats about men and women – such as the claim that women use thousands more words per day than men as a fairly non-controversial example. I know I’ve heard this quoted so many times! And yet, as Deborah Cameron explains in her very interesting book ‘The Myth of Mars and Venus,’ this statistic has no empirical basis at all – in fact studies tend to find little or no difference in the average numbers of words used per day by men and women. So why is this so widely believed? Because those subtle, subliminal messages we see everyday teach us that men and women are much more different than they really are, making us much more likely to believe messages like this that then exaggerate a difference that was never really there in the first place.
Genesis 1:27 states clearly that men and women are made in the image of God. The Message puts it beautifully translating God’s command ‘make them reflecting our nature.’ We need to be really careful about how and when we subconsciously or deliberately separate two groups of people who were created, not identical, but equal. It is in the combination of men and women, in the God ordained harmony of both working together and in real equality that we see the entire reflection of the image of God, not in separating them.
It isn’t just gender stereotypes in kids merchandise that risks this. I’m urging caution on a whole realm of ‘for women’ or ‘for men’ stuff. Of course there’s no harm in us meeting sometimes as guys or women only – sure, we have stuff to talk about that the others may find a bit bewildering or irrelevant. But lets work together and not be defensive to good challenges where perhaps things need to change. Lets take appropriate caution that we are not slipping into lazy stereotypes that risk at best alienating those who do not conform or excluding some who would otherwise have benefited, and at worst building up group identities that may foster and encourage very negative attitudes. Lets celebrate our amazing, God reflecting, common humanity rather than separating what God made equal.
Dr Kate Middleton is a church leader & psychologist with a passion for applying psychology and faith to real life. Although working mainly in the UK, she is currently based in Paris and balances commuting back to the UK with building links there. Kate is one of the leaders of ‘Mind and soul‘ & regularly writes for their website. She also speaks across the UK on a variety of topics & has written several books. In the UK Kate works with the Hitchin Christian Centre where you can find articles, talks etc by her. On Twitter she is @communik8ion.