With changing times it is important to tackle issues such as gender sensitivity at a young age and a large part of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of parents and schools.
Research suggests that from an early age children’s understanding of gender is influenced by their experiences with their family, culture and lifestyle, as well as by the broader community, child care environments and the media.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Definition – Gender sensitisation refers to theories which claim that modification of the behaviour of teachers and parents towards children can have a causal effect on gender equality. Gender sensitising “is about changing behaviour and instilling empathy into the views that we hold about our own and the other gender.” It helps people in “examining their personal attitudes and beliefs and questioning the ‘realities’ they thought they know.”
Gender roles in a patriarchal country like India are very stereotypical and strongly ingrained. Society starts influencing boys and girls at a very young age and expects men and women to behave in a certain way. Those who do not follow them are shamed for being different.
However, with changing times it is important to tackle these issues at a young age and a large part of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of parents and schools.
Research suggests that from an early age children’s understanding of gender is influenced by their experiences with their family, culture and lifestyle, as well as by the broader community, child care environments and the media. Boys and girls often experience responses and expectations from those around them due to their gender, and gender role stereotypes often influence the way boys and girls begin to experience life and how they play.
Change begins at home
Gender biases are seen right from the time the child is born. The colours used to decorate the room, toys and clothing styles are typical for boys and girls. Parents need to make a conscious effort to pick neutral colours, clothes and toys.
Toys have a significant impact on a child’s perception of gender. Many parents will want girls to play with dolls and worry if they prefer playing with blocks, although the latter can tremendously enhance children’s mathematical skills.
It is also important to select books carefully for children and ensure that these do not perpetuate any gender stereotypes.” However, this should not mean that children are denied the freedom to wear, play with or read what they want. Parents should be very careful not to impose their views on their children.
Also, often, parents and even educators tend to use endearments such as ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ for girls and ‘you guys’ for boys.
Making these small subtle changes will go a long way for your child.
Steps schools can take
To start with, schools should have similar rule for boys and girls. Let me share an incident that made me change our grooming policy in my school. A boy once came to me and told me, “You know it is unfair that girls get to keep long hair, while boys have to keep their hair short. Why can’t I sport long hair too?” I had no answer to this question hence I changed the policy and let boys sport long hair that had to be neatly tied up.
The Human Resource Ministry needs to look at changing textbooks to make them gender neutral. Often textbooks have pictures of women in the kitchen, while men are seen carrying briefcases and going to work.
Teachers should also use gender-neutral language. Choose plural pronouns, such as “they” and “them,” instead of masculine pronouns such as “he” and “him.” Words such as fire-fighter, flight attendant, garbage collector, and humankind can easily be used to replace the use of “man” as a generic noun or ending
Also, schools should encourage children to participate in theatre, and they should be encouraged to choose any role, irrespective of gender.
I have noticed on various occasions that while teachers and parents appreciate a girl’s hairstyle, a boy’s appearance is often ignored. Children pick up on these subtle messages and it affects their unconscious mind.
Influence of media
Media also plays a very important role in reinforcing stereotypes. For the longest time advertisements featured women doing household chores, while the men went out and worked. It is only now that a certain section of the media has become conscious of this bias and comes up with ads that portray a new story, where women are seen in all kinds of professions.
Books that help
• Baby Dance by Ann Taylor, tells children that the responsibility of tending to children does not have to be solely borne by mothers
• Made by Raffi by Craig Pomranz – the protagonist Raffi is passionate about knitting
• Free To Be… You and Me by Marlo Thomas, celebrates values such as individuality, tolerance and comfort with one’s own identity
• William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow explores the resistance faced by William from his brother and father when he asks for a doll. It also examines how playing with dolls can teach children to become nurturing
• Housework is Everyone’s Work by Kamla Bhasin is a collection of nursery rhymes which teaches that everyone is important in a family and that working together makes for an easier life
• Little Kunoichi, the Ninja Girl, by Sanae Ishida, highlights the importance of perseverance