A number conversations and news items this week have led me to think about role models. Or, more accurately, outside influences.
Research has come out this week confirming what many knew to be true – women are less likely to work in science, technology, engineering or maths. I had a chat on Twitter with a chap who wanted to know why women didn’t feel those things were careers they could/ would pursue.
This chat came a day after I was watching a film at work about a fabulous park project in Lancashire. The town residents had come together and formed a charity which worked closely with the local council, grants bodies like us and private firms to create a wonderful playing field and community centre from an old boggy field. The film was great, right up until they said they were concerned that the play equipment they had installed was all for boys and they wanted something for the girls. It had never occurred to me that you would segregate play equipment by gender. Some of this was to do with skating, which I know has a specific culture, but nevertheless some girls like skating and BMX and stuff. Look at Shanaze Reade. The girls equipment looked, to my eyes, to be gentler, more aerobic-y stuff.
So my point in this conversation became that gender expectations are everywhere and that girls are, from an early age, expected to fulfil a certain role. I find it worrying that in 2014 this is still the case. (While buying a glasses case shaped like a hippo this week the shop assistant wanted to know if it was for a boy or a girl because I was holding a blue one and she could find a pink if it was for a girl. It was actually for me.) It’s not just pink, or princesses, or play equipment but all of those and more. And it starts from a really young age. The gender campaigners Pink Stinks just this week pointed out a babygro that Gap are selling for baby girls (they checked the label for this) ages, 0-24 months. The slogan on the front reads: Flirt. Gap are “investigating.” Damn right they are.
So that brings me to role models. David Cameron, in the wake of the Mark Duggan verdict, said that young black men in Tottenham had a great positive role model in their local MP, David Lammy, a black man who’d gone on to achieve things. But while that’s true, it isn’t enough. A role model, especially one on TV or in a position of power, is not enough when you’ve also got to deal with other influences – things closer to home as well as media and advertising.
Sometimes the negative things are unconsciously done. S has already talked about taking E to the park when she’s older and teaching her to throw, so that she doesn’t throw a ball “like a girl.” I’m sure I’ve said something equally silly about other subjects. And then kicked myself obviously. We’ve also made jokes about “girls don’t do that” or “boys do this.” It’s so easy to say something that they might take seriously.
I am conscious of this post dissolving into one of those hopeless “it wasn’t like this in my day” rants which isn’t helpful. But I do feel like, as parents, we are wrestling with the enormous influence of the mass media which gets ever wider and more poisonous with each day. And with that, the influence of that media on ourselves and our nearest and dearest. With that in mind, I feel I’m daily having to monitor what gets said to E, what she reads, what she watches.
That sounds dreadful doesn’t it? I don’t mean that I’m censoring things. In some ways it feels like the opposite – like I’m trying to ensure her options stay as open as possible. And she’s only 19 months old. But if we’re foisting a sexualised culture on babies 0-24 months, then I need to start now.