Yesterday we asked if parents should buy their children gender neutral toys this Christmas. The gender equality expert, Karen Woodall, responded with such a thoughtful comment that we've republished here as an article. Here's what she had to say:
I used to think it was nurture not nature when I had a girl and then she had a boy and I was taught a very very very big lesson...girls and boys are different creatures....the older I get the more I understand how different we are and how that difference is what we need to work with in equalities work not this endless focus on neutral.
The strapline of the old Equal Opportunities Commission used to be: "Women, Men, Different, Equal". It is a shame that it is not still widely used because this idea that if something is gender neutral it is good, is not actually true in equalities work.
To even up power imbalance you have to make something gender aware not gender neutral because of the way that gender neutral is enacted in a gender biased world ...so take the case of toys for example...a gender neutral toy will be likely to be turned into a gendered toy by the girl or boy playing with it. Girls will turn a block of wood into a doll and nurse it and boys will turn it into a gun or some other attacking implement and use it that way.
Messing with a child's gender identity is cruel
That is because we are not born the same, we are born with different biological drivers and if we nurture those different drivers in children, the argument goes that we shut down their other capabilities, so, although they would turn a block of wood into gendered toys left to themselves, if you want to drive gender neutrality in children what you do is gender proof the toys and ensure that they cannot be identified or used to further gendered expectations.
You would give a girl a science based toy and suround her with messages that this is her identify and a boy a doll and a pram and surround him with messages that this is his identity, that way you counter the nature based stuff. Now when this is put like this most people recoil because they don't really want children to be socially engineered like this and personally, I thnk those people who interfere with children's inherent gender identity are clueless and quite cruel.
I was one of those for the first three years of my daughter's life (how embarrasing to think of it now) in that she was not allowed to have anything pink or anything girly. Then I saw her playing with her friends in nursery and realised that what I was doing was imposing MY beliefs on her instead of allowing her to grow and helping to gently shape that.
Men and women are not the same
Now that she has a boy who is all things that boys can be - sticks, mini cars in his pockets, scuffed knees, grubby face, jumps rolls and generally spends his life upside down if he can - I understand at a very immediate level that if you let difference come through it does.
However, in terms of equalities work there is a long way to go because men and women are not the same and they are not the same within the spectrum of their own gender either. Gender identity is different too, you have very girly girls for example and less girly girls, you have very masculine boys and less masculine boys and allowing that difference within gender identity by promoting and supporting fluidity in the way we express our femine and masculine selves is really important in promoting equality.
Ultimately it is about difference and having the choice to express that difference. We are not all neutral and we are not all the same and when we understand how to cope with our differences then we are into a place called equality.
---Photo Credit: flickr/Ano Lobb
Tell us what you think? Will boys be boys (and girls be girls) or are the toys we give our children helping to condition them to be masculine or feminine?
ABOUT KAREN WOODALL:
Karen Woodall is a partner at the Family Separation Clinic working with the whole family through difficult times. Karen is a specialist in working with high conflict separation and parental alienation. Her book Understanding Parental Alienation; learning to cope, helping to heal is in press. Working with families from a non feminist perspective, Karen is co-developing support services which are based upon understanding of family violence and dysfunction as a generational problem and is working alongside Erin Pizzey to build these into a therapeutic model which can be widely used.
You can follow Karen's writings at her outspoken and often controversial blog: Karen Woodall.
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