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That time when I stopped to consider gender bias

By very definition of my role, I spend a lot of time pondering diversity. Working in tech, our focus levels heavily on encouraging more females to consider a career within engineering, as well as working hard to seek out those that are already working in this arena.

It’s a hard fight as the odds are stacked against us. But we remain determined.

As a woman, I’m aware that I have natural strengths in understanding the limitations placed on women through our socialisation in society. I get it because I live it.

I can see how the conversation that society has with us from a young age gives us clear messages about what we are able to achieve, what we should aspire to and how we should hope to get there. As we all know, those pressures can be fairly intense.

But let us now widen that lens to the whole of society.

In considering this stuff in the way that I have, it’s led to me becoming tangibly aware of the way that men are limited through their own socialisation in society, and that to really overcome the prescriptive biases we all encounter, we have to look at the holistic picture.

I watched an interesting film recently called The Work. It’s a documentary set inside a men’s prison, where a group of guys from the outside get to come and spend a few days with the guys on the inside, for a group therapy session. Some of it made for pretty powerful viewing, but what struck me the most, was the similarity between the two different groups.

Both sets of men had been severely limited by their inability to express emotion, formed largely by the expectation to be brave, be manly, and the things that they learnt about themselves as children. Their experiences and reactions to those experiences were relatively similar, the only real variation was the end result – namely if they had done something to end up in prison.

Men, like women, are clipped and trimmed by their experiences and the reactions of the people in the world around them. They are assigned a clear emotional role from an early age and are expected to operate within it. As they grow up, many men are then judged on their inability to express emotion, even though this is the very thing they have often been forced repress. Whereas many women are likely judged on their over-expression of it.

I’m sure this isn’t news for most people, but it’s something that I’ve been thinking about more and more.

Which begs the next question: how do we change it? How do we support our children to extend and expand beyond the confines of their gender biased roles, professionally and spiritually?

Gender neutral parenting is on the rise but is certainly not the norm. In my own world, my forward thinking parents took it upon themselves to raise me and my three siblings in a fairly gender neutral way back in the 80’s. They weren’t trying to neutralise gender, they simply wanted to give us the best chance of being who or what we really wanted to be, without being defined by gender.

We didn’t wear any gender specific colours and were encouraged to play with non gender specific educational toys. As girls, we were able to cut our hair short if we chose to, or grow it longer in the case of my brother.

Eventually though, societal pressures took a hold, and suddenly all we wanted was what the other children had; for me that was dolls and pink dresses (until I gave the doll a mohawk and died it green, but that’s another story haha). We wanted to fit in. My parents allowed some flexibility, and we were therefore allowed some compromises, but I appreciate the balanced view I had (and have) been given of the world.

I can’t say whether my career aspirations or my ability to thrive was impacted by my parenting, but I can say that my assigned gender role certainly informed many of my more personal decisions.

I recently listened to a podcast on Hidden Brain about a couple who managed to uphold gender neutral parenting. They were determined to raise children who believed they could do anything, and who could grow into the truest versions of who they really are.

To do so, it meant leaving many of their family and friends behind however, and carving out a very different experience for their children. Their families in particular found their decisions challenging.

They spoke of a particular incident in hospital once their first daughter was born where, having gone home to sleep for a couple of hours, the mother returned to find the nurses had changed her child from the gender neutral outfit she had been left in to head to toe hot pink. Immediately the way that people spoke about her child shifted, the vocabulary changed to words like; delicate, dainty and precious. She was horrified. Strong, powerful and healthy were the words she wanted her daughter to identify with.

It really illustrated to me just how quickly our gender assignment happens. Literally as soon as we are born we are socialised into our respective roles. By everyone. How much are you and I inadvertently reinforcing gender roles therefore in our own lives?

Listening to one of their children on the podcast, it seemed as though this particular couple might well have indeed succeeded in managing to give their children the mindset (and therefore the chances) they had hoped for. Their 16 year old daughter spoke with a clarity, wisdom and confidence that we seldom witness from adults, let alone teenagers.

Find the full episode “Be The Change” here and enjoy their daughter Isis in all her teenage glory.

I’d love to hear your views on this stuff. This isn’t something I have specific answers to, I’m just interested in evolving my own role in the world from one of reinforcing gender stereotypes to breaking them down. For all of us.