Let's End the Pink-Blue Stereotypes So Girls and Boys Have the World at Their Fingertips

Elementary students perform a traditional dance in Turkmenistan.
Elementary students perform a traditional dance in Turkmenistan.

By Laurence Levaque

The socialization process by which children learn gender roles and stereotypes starts from a very young age, when children become really aware of their gender identity.

I was so disappointed the day I heard my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter telling me: “No mama, I can’t become a prime minister because I am a girl.” We were chatting in the car stuck in Manila traffic about what she would like to become.

This was just the beginning. Since then, I have been hearing my daughter saying things like “No, this is for boys!” or “Josephine managed to open this. Is she a boy?”

It is at this age that children become really aware of their gender identity. They already know a lot about social expectations for girls/women and boys/men, and how girls/women and boys/men “need” to behave. I was amazed when watching this video that shows 4- or 5-year-old kids giving very gender-stereotyped responses to questions about appropriate female/male dress and activities.

The socialization process by which children learn gender roles and stereotypes starts from a very young age. The childhood years are therefore a critical period to deal with gender stereotypes. Have you ever been in my situation? Looking for a birthday present for a girl that is not a Barbie, not a Disney princess, not a doll, not domestic-related stuff, and not pink? Or a birthday present for a boy that is not one of those aggressive cars or motorbikes, not a monster, not a transformer or not a superhero? If so, then you know what I am talking about: you come out of the toy shop frustrated with nothing in your hands.

Toy companies have even come to categorize toys as being “for girls” or “for boys”. Our daughters and sons already learn what they are expected to do and how they are expected to behave from the toys we choose for them. I am not the only frustrated parent.

Let Toys be Toys” is a parent-led campaign that is asking retailers and manufacturers to stop limiting girls’ and boys’ interests to explore, and let them decide what they want to play with. A few toy companies have gone even further and are designing toys that challenge gender stereotypes. The GoldieBlox toys are for example trying to get girls interested in engineering.

The toy industry is not the only one to blame. What about the teachers? Teachers often play an important role in gender socialization, though mostly unintentionally; hence the importance to make teachers—particularly pre-school teachers—well aware of possible gender biases in teaching and their effects on girls’ and boys’ development and opportunities in the future. So what can teachers do to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom? For example, they can encourage girls to speak up and present in front of the class, and that girls’ views and contributions are valued. Teachers can also ensure an environment that is gender-neutral, encourage girls and praise those that do well in science and math, as well as boys in reading and language arts.

We as parents have a big responsibility, too. Let our sons cry when they need to, and let us praise them for their caring or helping behavior. Let our daughters be rough, and let them be assertive and believe in themselves. When we read a story, let us be conscious of gender bias. A doctor, a scientist or an engineer can be a she or a he! By maintaining gender stereotypes, we are in fact limiting opportunities for our sons and daughters, and not allowing them to discover their talents. Let us equip our young children with positive messages of empowerment, regardless of gender.

I like to repeat to my daughter that all doors are wide open for her, and that the world is hers. That day in the car, I said “Remember what the Prime Minister of Bhutan told you when we went to offer him a ‘khaddar’ [ceremonial scarf]? He put back the khaddar around your neck and wished you will become a prime minister in the future!”. I am patiently waiting to see whether my daughter will make this wish come true, and—as a prime minister somewhere—will then advocate for a more egalitarian society.

With the goal of encouraging children and teachers in the Philippines to think about what gender equality means and how they see it in the future, ADB recently organized a drawing contest with the theme “Color the future: Women and Men-Achieving TogHetHer”.  Watch on www.adb.org for the results on 9 March, 2015. The winning drawings are amazing.