Last week a request came around my workplace for people to help moving tables and chairs. The request included the line “preferably at least 2 boys”. There are around 45 staff, and the gender balance may not be even, but it must be pretty close. The thing that really struck me is this: I know of several people who could not be involved in moving furniture, due to injury or illness, but none whose gender would be the deciding factor. Indeed, there are girls on staff who could probably easily win an arm wrestle with just about any other member of staff.
We like to think of ourselves as enlightened and inclusive. We don’t like to think that we still reek of prejudice. Yet statements like the one above show up our assumptions and prejudices, warts and all. Girls aren’t good at moving furniture. We’re probably not good at maths & science, either. We’re certainly not good with computers. There are probably few people, aside from Andrew Bolt, who would be willing to stand up in public and say we belong bare foot and pregnant in the kitchen, but I do wonder how far we have actually come, in the privacy of our own minds.
If I showed you a picture of a man, and one of a woman, and asked you to choose someone to help you with your furniture moving, which would you choose?
What if I showed you the same pictures and asked you to pick which one was the nurse, and which the engineer?
Primary school teacher?
Stay at home parent?
When I tell you I’ve just been to the doctor, will you ask what he said?
A friend of mine once told me that girls could cook, but they were not competent chefs. The friend was highly educated, extremely intelligent, and perfectly serious. Our cooking skills were fine, but for serious, gourmet food creation you needed a boy. Apparently the high culinary arts are located on the Y chromosome. Years later he offered to marry me for my pavlova, but it was too little, too late.
If my young daughters were to draw pictures of the above professions, I’d like to think there would be no signs of gender bias, but I’m sure there would be. On the bright side, I don’t think they consider themselves barred from any profession by reason of gender – but they do seem to be drawn more towards traditionally female roles, and repelled by traditional male ones. My 4 year old refused to wear her blue slippers yesterday, because “they make me feel boyish”.
Put a 4 year old girl next to a 4 year old boy and you will probably correctly pick the one who is into fairies and the one who is obsessed with trucks. 4 year olds pick up very accurately on our expectations. But the one who is into fairies might be playing with a bulldozer while wearing her fair wings, and the one who loves trucks might also be keen on drawing and flowers.
Kids learn most from what we do, not from what we say. This year there are 7 girls out of 26 kids in my year 11 information technology class. Last year there were 2. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that having a female IT teacher may have triggered a few attitude changes in the students. When we get to a 50-50 ratio I can retire. When we make assumptions based on gender, we are unwittingly educating our kids. What do you teach the young people around you?
I would be the last to argue that there are no differences between the genders. Certainly there are statistical differences overall – on average men find it easier to build muscle than women. But we tend to forget that statistics are useless in the specific case. Put me next to a man and statistics won’t tell you which of us is physically stronger. Despite our assumptions, there are very few jobs that a woman can do and a man can’t. And there are very few jobs that a man can do and a woman can’t. Shifting furniture may be impossible if you have an injured back, or a broken arm. But it’s no problem if you have a vagina.
Challenge your assumptions!