Mummy, can girls be firemen?

When I was growing up, my parents certainly instilled in me the notion that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. Over the years, my aspirations fluctuated from wishing to train as a hairdresser to becoming a fashion designer, being married at 26 with a private jet. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor, but chose the path to justice (a solicitor, near enough) when I soon realised I could not watch a blood test without squirming in my chair. The private jet is a work in progress…

When I had my own children, I became more conscious of the importance of not categorising or distinguishing between girls and boys, other than for anatomy’s sake! I am the first to take the time to explain to my eldest daughter that her brother might want to wear pink, despite her having already claimed “pink is for girls mummy”, or tried to understand her reasons when she says “I don’t want boys at my party” or “boys can’t be my best friends”. I accept that perhaps these distinctions, are at least, in part, a consequence of my daughter recognising the differences between girls and boys, but nevertheless, I still wonder if the origin of her comments lies deeper.

More recently, given the extent of the media coverage of large scale fires in London, my daughter asked “Mummy, can girls be firemen?” and also, perhaps given the prolific construction work on local roads, she went on to ask “and what about builders?”

At home, my husband and I have tried to use gender neutral language, attempting not to stereotype roles or jobs, be it in discussions amongst ourselves or with our children present. However, we also recognise the need for pragmatism; in our view, the use of a particular title does not of itself promote sexism, an intent to categorise is also highly relevant. Notwithstanding our own opinions, I wish to consider what has motivated our daughter to ask the aforementioned questions? Is it merely a direct result of what she has witnessed, personally or on television, or is there a deeper meaning connected or or associated with a gender bias?

A friend recently shared with me a riddle which a colleague uses when addressing professionals attending sessions focused on gender equality.

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” Explain.

How can the boy have two dads? Is the father in a gay relationship? Does the father have a twin? These might be some of the questions you asked of yourself when considering the explanation to the riddle, but did you also guess or consider the surgeon could be the boy’s mother? If not, you are part of a surprising majority.

In research conducted by Mikaela Wapman and Deborah Belle, a College of Arts & Sciences psychology professor, even young people and self-described feminists tended to overlook the possibility that the surgeon in the riddle was a she. The researchers ran the riddle by two groups: 197 psychology students and 103 children, ages 7 to 17, from US summer camps.

In both groups, only a small minority of subjects—15 percent of the children and 14 percent of the students—came up with the mum’s-the-surgeon answer. Curiously, life experiences that might suggest the mum answer “had no association with how one performed on the riddle,” Wapman says. For example, the student cohort, where women outnumbered men two-to-one, typically had mothers who were employed or were doctors—“and yet they had so much difficulty with this riddle,” says Belle. Self-described feminists did better, she says, but even so, 78 percent did not say the surgeon was the mother. (The results were no different for an alternate version of the riddle: a mother is killed, her daughter sent to the hospital, and a nurse declines to attend to the patient because “that girl is my daughter”; few people guessed that the nurse might be the child’s father.)

What made imagining a surgeon mum so difficult? Gender schemas—generalisations that help us explain our complex world and “don’t reflect personal values or life experience,” says Wapman. (So having a surgeon mother doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll propose that as the riddle’s solution.)

A schema describes a pattern of thought or behaviour that organises categories of information and the relationships between them. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organising and perceiving new information. Schemas are formed very early in life and often help us to understand the way in which children play. Children often exhibit certain patterns of behaviour as they explore the world and investigate how things work. These patterns underpin the way in which a child is learning by building upon knowledge and making connections.

As parents, forming part of a different generation to our children, we grew up during a time when certain practices, ways of speaking or of doing, methods of categorising and distinguishing roles, all influenced the way in which we acquired knowledge and established our views and values. As adults, we therefore need to understand that we all hold or possess some kind of bias, regardless of the subject matter. As such, we need to be vigilant in how we portray these views and values to our children, even subconsciously. It may be that it is not our words which have the greatest impact; our actions and gestures, or even what we do not say, can all be factors which influence the connections our children make each day and therefore the behaviour they exhibit.

I take comfort in the fact that our daughter asked a question, in a bid to search for more knowledge, to build upon the connections she has already made. By questioning the gender of certain professions, we see she has no preconceived ideas, nor has she made a judgment about how things should be; she has no bias. Consequently, my reply to her questions, “you can be whatever you choose to be”, might go some way to banishing gender stereotyping, be it related to men or to women.

Rather than be overwhelmed by my initial feelings of surprise and concern at the posing of such significant questions by a four year old, I can now feel proud that my daughter has the instinct to research and inform herself without presuming and without judging.



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