Who Milks the Cow Now? Or How to Communicate Gender Stereotypes

A man milking a cow breaks a gender stereotype in Mongolia. Photo by T. Alih.
A man milking a cow breaks a gender stereotype in Mongolia. Photo by T. Alih.

By Pinky Serafica, Tsolmon Begzsuren

Changing gender stereotypes in Mongolia is about aiming for subtle shifts in the tectonic plates of gender equality.

Монгол хэл дээр унших бол энд дарна уу.

The picture looks benign enough: A man sits milking a cow while a woman, possibly his spouse, holds the reins of two calves. Unless you are a nomadic herder from Mongolia, you’d hashtag the scene as #normal, peering from the multi-colored lenses you use to ascribe attributes and assign roles. Man, herding cattle, goats and sheep. Woman, processing dairy products. Man, hunting. Woman, housework. So wait, man milking cow?

Zoom in to the country where herding is central to its history and culture, and where herders live off their animals and steppes – and the photo becomes more intoxicating than the most potent arkhi (Mongolian traditional milk vodka). Winning the second prize in an ADB and Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction-supported communication campaign about gender stereotyping, the photo captures a tremor, a challenge to a taboo that men—particularly Kazhak minorities—cannot milk cows because that is traditionally women’s work.

What framed that winning photo? Perhaps the photographer had lucky timing to capture a bid for survival that blurred gender roles, or perhaps he spotted a deviance, or even perhaps it’s been set up. An ADB formative research on public perception and attitudes on gender inequality shows that Mongolians are still holding fast to gender stereotypes. While the photo traced a fault line, the Richter scale has not yet moved toward the magnitude where gender relations are shifting and an equality earthquake is happening.

Gender stereotypes are widely accepted judgment or bias about what occupations are considered as proper for men and women based on perceived characteristics of each sex. The results of the formative research pointed to the most dominant gender stereotypes prevailing in contemporary Mongolian society, most finding root in child rearing and family dynamics:

  1. Boys, and consequently men, don’t cry.
  2. Women and girls are responsible for caregiving duties and household chores.
  3. Men and boys are naturally naughty and messy.
  4. Girls are more studious than boys.
  5. Boys can survive whatever circumstances, so they do not need higher education.
  6. Women and girls need to take care of their physical appearance.

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Whether in the steppes or a city, the desert or a tropical country, the stereotypes are predictably similar everywhere. What makes stereotypes damaging is when women’s or men’s capacities to develop their abilities are curtailed and their careers are predetermined, severely limiting life plans and choices.

What seems like a simple photo of a man milking a cow is really a complicated story borne of stereotypes. The steppes are exposed to the elements and harsh, but because men are perceived as survivors and equal to the exacting landscape, they herd, own the herd, and are measured in net worth from the number of heads in the herd and the size of their ger (felt tents).

Men can only bequeath the herd and ger to sons who are as hardy as them, and if boys inherit and are expected to naturally survive pastoral life, what use is it to sit through science, math and literature?

Herder children, from the time they are 6, are required to stay put in school dormitories in villages, and since girls are considered more studious anyway and have less opportunity to inherit, it is the women who become lettered and learned. Mothers most often stay in the settlements to look after the kids in school for most of the year, begging the question – who milks the cows now?

The story continues in Ulaanbaatar, where more than half of Mongolia’s 3.2 million population huddle. This is also where over 86% of women, despite being better educated, end up with jobs in the education and health sectors which pay the lowest wages because—back to stereotypes—these are where they can best employ caregiving duties and keep house. The low social value attributed to the work of teachers also discourages boys to major in education.

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To communicate this complex story, the formative research identified key gender stereotypes, and also pinpointed where stereotypes start to take hold and who the gatekeepers are. Using these insights, a three-month multimedia communication campaign focused on parents, teachers and journalists since many of the stereotypes were, inadvertently or not, established at home, and reinforced in school and through media. Journalists were identified as influencers because the way they treat stories and choose whom to highlight were critical in challenging mindsets.        

Responding to a competition of journalistic articles promoting gender equality, Today journalist Uyanga Khaidav chose Narangerel Battushig. Originally from the Bulgan soum of Umnugovi province, Battushig intuited how her hometown oversimplified characterizations of girls that she targeted low in her job hunting: dishwasher, chef’s assistant. But Battushig had a powerful childhood memory that neutralized the paralyzing conclusions she was making about her selfesteem: a grandparent lifting her head up. “Why are you hanging your head like you are suffering from pain?”

Battushig became a welder, then operated a forklift in a warehouse, all the while excelling. She pursued and now drives a Komatsu 930, a behemoth haul truck that Khaidav describes as “tall as a two-story building and as big as a mediumsized apartment.” Afraid of being relegated back to the warehouse, Battushig kept her pregnancy a secret at first, but no one blamed the belly when she maneuvered the 600-ton vehicle to haul 300 tons of ore daily across the Gobi in all weather conditions.

Whether it is about milking cows and driving giant machines, there may not be gender equality earthquakes, but there are subtle shifts in the tectonic plates.

Mongolian journalists, teachers, government officials and NGOs can download communication materials from the project website to address gender stereotypes.