(The following is a modified version of what I have written for one of my degree modules. I will share it on my blog in 2 parts)
“One is not born a woman, but becomes one” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex in 1949. It was a line that jumped out of the page and confronted me right in the face when I was 17. My world became so much more exciting thereafter and I made a promise to spend the rest of my life working on the issue of gender equality in societies whereby traditional gender roles and stereotypes are still heavily reinforced through family, education, the government, media and popular culture.
The idea of gender inequality was introduced to me at a young age. After my brother was born, all the attention shifted to him and went on for many years. The adults fussed so much about his health and well-being. They praised him for being such a friendly boy while I was the serious one with my books and paint brushes. I was more interested in exploring my environment than interacting with people. The differences in our appearances made it worse for he was obese and I was underweight. People joked that my parents must have had a preference for boys since he looked so well fed. That made me furious and I cursed my unfortunate birth.
Being 5 at that time, I did not realise that because he was born premature, everyone was worried about keeping him healthy and alive. Although I realised awhile later that gender inequality was not the reason why we were treated somewhat differently, the naïve misunderstanding together with my sense of resistance towards the traditional gender roles enforced upon me by people around me when I was growing up, made me seek for gender equality. Hence I was ecstatic when I first heard about Simone de Beauvoir. She made me feel less like an alien because I was brought up to believe that I was the only weird girl alive who was determined in my rejection of the concept of marriage as I viewed it as a woman’s social prison.
De Beauvoir wrote about how gender inequality begins from childhood in her section Lived Experience. I was intrigued but since I was past my childhood, it never occurred to me that it would be of much use to me until I became a teacher. Observing several elements around me from colleagues to toys played by the children, I began to understand that gender stereotypes exist and are being reinforced right from the beginning of a child’s life. This is why I have always tried my best to introduce gender neutral activities, stories, toys and comments in my interaction with children, sometimes much to the criticism of my contemporaries who believe that girls and boys have to be brought up differently.
Theories and research on gender development
The moment a child is born, gender stereotyping takes place at full force. From the choice of colours when buying clothes for the newborn to toys when it comes to gift selection for the baby shower, gender plays a major factor. In fact, exposure to gender stereotypical models will become a consistent part of the child’s life. Social learning theory proposes that examples provided by the existing same-sex models in the child’s environment, along with the constant reinforcement on gender appropriate behaviour plays a huge part on the acquisition of sex-typed behaviours occurring during the pre-school years (Rubel et. al., 1988).
The Cognitive-Developmental Theory formulated by Kohlberg (1966) on the other hand, suggests that children’s understanding of gender develops in stages. Kohlberg believed that children do not actively process gender information until they reach gender constancy which is the third developmental stage of theory that occurs when the child is between 5 to 7 (Sammons, 2009).
Differing slightly from Kohlberg, gender schema theory introduced by Bem in 1981 explains that children develop a basic gender schema by the time they are about 2 and is able to associate themselves as females or males. This marks the beginning of the process whereby children begin to seek out information from their environments to help them understand “maleness and femaleness” (Sammons, 2009). The more they pick up the “contents of the society’s gender schema, they learn which attributes are to be linked with their own sex and, hence with themselves” (Bem, 1981, p. 355).
In my view, we cannot underestimate the power of modelling and reinforcement because they are powerful components of conditioning, as strongly researched by key theorists of behaviourism such as Pavlov (1927) and Skinner (1963). We also cannot deny the fact that children do play an active part in their learning and development and are also able to form their own opinions on gender as they mature as suggested by Bem’s (1981) theory. However as adults who care about giving children equal opportunities to explore their world and develop to their fullest potential regardless of gender, we should bear in mind not to limit their potential by restricting them to ‘gender-appropriate’ paths.
(To be continued in Part 2…)
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