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What is gender bias and gender stereotyping? Have you ever heard a coach say to a young boy, "You throw like a girl?" This is one example. Simply put, the coach is saying that the boy does not throw well. It is a put-down meant to motivate.
While women such as Serena and Venus Williams, Mia Hamm, Cindy Blodgett, have proven that women can be just as competitive athletically as men, this saying is still used frequently today. This saying perpetuates the belief that while girls may be athletic, they are not as good as boys. Both boys and girls hear this message loud and clear. Are there other ways to motivate young athletes without putting a specific gender down? Do you think this perpetuates the idea that girls and boys should be encouraged and discouraged from pursuing certain things based on their gender?
Because we all want children to be safe, healthy and happy, we innocently may contribute to this belief system by encouraging and discouraging certain behaviors based on gender because we don’t want them to get picked on or bullied.
Even before children can talk, society teaches them what is expected of them as boys and girls. Go to the girls' clothes section in Wal-Mart and you will be overwhelmed with the amount of pink and glitter you find there. The word "Princess" and pictures of kittens and fairies adorn the shirts and dresses in this section. The boys' section is covered in pictures of footballs, baseballs, superheroes and trucks. We are all guilty of buying these hyper-gender-specific clothes for the children in our lives. It seems innocent enough, but the messages we are sending to children through the bombardment of these images and behaviors can be more detrimental than we might think.
Say a little boy wants to play with a doll or use an easy bake oven; it won't take long for him to know this is wrong. While he may be learning to be nurturing and creative in the kitchen, friends may call him a girl, a "sissy," or a "wuss." And if a girl doesn't like Barbie’s, but likes trucks and boys' clothing, she's a "tomboy."
That label seems innocent enough and sometimes can be seen as a compliment. But it may teach this girl that being true to herself can only be defined as boy like. And when she gets older this name might transform into something harsher like "butch," and her heterosexuality may be questioned. And the boy who played with dolls may hear “gay”, or “fag," or "fairy."
While, we always tell children to be themselves, the media, their peers, and even we, their friends and family, send messages to children that try to fit them into the narrow constraints of what it means to be a boy or a girl.
What can we all do to encourage children to define themselves? We can be aware of how our own fears about gender role expression can influence how we support the children in our lives. Be open to seeing the world, i.e. commercials, toys, clothing, movies, through the eyes of someone without the already defined gender roles. Look for and support kid’s books, TV shows, and movies with strong lead characters for both genders. Have conversation about this complex dilemma with young and old. We can all be conscientious and deliberate about the messages we send.
To find out how the pressure of gender roles can lead to unhealthy and abusive relationships, look for an upcoming "Wait What?" column.
For more information about the Oxford County Domestic Violence Task Force contact, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Safe Voices, check out safevoices.org. Safe Voices 24-hour free and confidential helpline is 1-800-559-2927.