The Children are Watching

A video has been doing the rounds on Facebook recently. A teacher asks her 6-7 year old students to draw a picture of a firefighter, a pilot and a surgeon. After they've all finished drawing, they name them - Gary, Jim and Steve are the ones we hear. The teacher asks if they want to meet a real firefighter, pilot and surgeon, and the students shout their agreement excitedly. As the classroom door opens to reveal the three adults in their uniforms, there's pin-drop silence. All three are women. 

The boys look shocked and the girls look delighted. "They're dressed up!" shouts one. 

The video was made to spread awareness of how gender stereotypes are defined between 5 and 7 years of age, and to urge us all to "redraw the balance". In the classroom, 61 pictures were drawn as men, and only 5 as women. In a time where women break barriers everyday - by entering the workforce, by staying in the workforce, by shattering glass ceilings, by chipping away at male-dominated areas - the majority of these kids still automatically thought that only men could do those jobs. The girls' surprise and delight, when they see that women do these jobs too, is telling. "Wait, we can do that too?!"

As a parent, it's very tempting to just go with the flow. But in an environment where everything, every tiny little thing, is geared to let your little one know that some things are acceptable for girls (pink, crying, frills) and some only for boys (trucks, dinosaurs, maths), it's the parents' job to let children know otherwise. If that means overcompensating on the other side, so be it. It's worth it to stop limiting your child's potential - and yes, that's what the world is trying to do. A Gap Kids advertisement made the news recently for blatant gender stereotyping - the toddler boy was a "little scholar", and dressed the part. The toddler girl is a "social butterfly". Sounds like a dream job - too bad it doesn't pay! 

The gender pay gap, the under-representation of women in certain fields, the gender aspirations gap, the division of labour at home, the violence faced by women and girls at all stages in their lives -- all of this is connected to the insidious gender stereotyping that begins in our society right at birth. It harms both girls and boys, men and women. 

If we want a diverse and inclusive workforce, we need to start preparing for that at home. The gender pay gap is closing far too slowly - we need today's children, who are tomorrow's leaders, to understand why there should be no gender pay gap. The current underrepresentation of women can only be shifted if girls today are encouraged to enter ALL fields, given role models to follow, and supported until they are in senior roles, which in turn would close the gender aspirations gap. Seeing mama fix the cabinet and dadda cook dinner sometimes, shows boys and girls that domestic chores come under the purview of the parents, not just of the mother. Treating girls and women as humans with agency and rights, and giving them the chance to follow their dreams instead of using their bodies as a ground for battle over "honour", will decrease the violence they face. 

Start with baby steps, and they'll soon get bigger. The next time the salesperson nudges your daughter away from the blue truck towards the pink doll - step up. The children are watching. 


Divya Alexander is an independent research consultant in human rights and international development. She studied at Mount Carmel College and the University of Oxford, and has worked for Amnesty International USA (Washington D.C.), the United Nations Population Fund (New York), and Dr. Devaki Jain (former advisor to the erstwhile Planning Commission, Govt. of India). She currently lives in Hong Kong and can be contacted at divya.alexander@gmail.com.