What is Gender Socialisation?
Gender socialisation is the process by which children (and adults) learn their culture’s gender related rules, norms, and expectations. It begins at birth and continues throughout life, as children and adults are exposed to different influences such as family, peers, media, and institutions. It can have a significant impact on individuals, influencing their behaviour, beliefs, and attitudes.
For example, boys are often socialised to be assertive, competitive, and independent, while girls are taught to be nurturing, passive, and emotional. It can also perpetuate gender inequality and reinforce gender stereotypes.
For example, girls may be encouraged to pursue traditionally feminine roles and careers, while boys may be discouraged from expressing emotions or engaging in activities considered “girly.”
Does this vary by culture?
Different societies have different gender norms, values, and expectations.
For example, some cultures may place greater emphasis on male dominance and assertiveness, while others may value more collaborative and cooperative behaviours in both men and women.
It can also vary by region, ethnicity, and wealth within a particular culture.
For instance, gender roles and expectations may differ between urban and rural areas, or between different racial or ethnic groups within a society.
The process of gender socialisation can also be influenced by many other factors, including religion, political ideology, and historical traditions. In some societies, religion may play a significant role in shaping gender norms and expectations, while in others, political and economic systems may have a greater impact.
How have toy companies traditionally encouraged this?
Toy companies have historically played a significant role in encouraging gender socialisation by producing and marketing toys that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes. Toys that are marketed to girls often feature themes related to nurturing, domesticity, and beauty, such as dolls, kitchen sets, and makeup kits. While toys marketed to boys typically emphasise aggression, competition, and strength, such as action figures, toy guns, and construction sets.
These companies have also used gendered marketing techniques, such as different colours, packaging, and advertising to appeal to specific gender stereotypes.
Pink and purple colours are often used to market toys to girls, while blue and green are used for boys. Advertisements for toys marketed to boys often show them engaging in rough and tumble play, while advertisements for toys marketed to girls often show them playing quietly and in groups.
However, in recent years, some toy companies have started to challenge traditional gender stereotypes and promote more gender-neutral toys. Toys are now being produced that feature characters from diverse backgrounds and abilities, or that encourage creativity and problem-solving rather than conforming to gender norms.
Where else do young children get their information about gender from?
Family is often the first and strongest influence on children, and parents can have a significant impact on their children’s understanding of gender. Parents may use different language or behaviour when interacting with their sons and daughters, or encourage other interests and activities based on their child’s gender.
Peers can significantly influence how children understand gender, as they may reinforce or challenge gender stereotypes through their behaviour and attitudes. For instance, boys may be teased for engaging in traditionally feminine activities, while girls may face similar pressures to conform to gender norms.
Children are exposed to a wide range of powerful media influences, including television shows, movies, video games, and social media. Media often presents gender stereotypes in subtle or explicit ways, which can shape children’s attitudes and beliefs about gender roles and expectations.
Schools and other educational institutions can also reinforce or challenge gender stereotypes through their curriculum and teaching materials. For example, girls may not be taught football and boys not taught netball, or textbooks may present male and female characters in stereotypical roles.
Are things changing?
Recently there has been a shift towards using more gender-neutral language and practices, such as using ‘they/them’ pronouns instead of ‘he/she’, and creating gender-neutral bathrooms and clothing lines.
There is more effort to teach children about gender diversity and inclusion, as well as campaigns to raise awareness about issues such as gender-based violence and discrimination.
Progress has been made in policymaking, such as laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and policies promoting greater representation of women and other marginalised genders in leadership positions. And, as mentioned earlier, there is a growing trend towards promoting more gender-neutral toys and media that challenge traditional gender stereotypes, helping children to explore a wider range of interests and activities, regardless of their gender.
What are the benefits of these changes on children’s development?
When children are able to explore their interests and express themselves without being constrained by gender stereotypes, they have the opportunity to develop greater self-esteem and confidence which will help them to be more resilient and better able to navigate challenges throughout their lives. It may also help lower the risk of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. This is particularly true for children who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
Exposing them to diverse gender identities and expressions will allow children to develop greater empathy and understanding towards others who are different from them, helping to reduce prejudice and promote greater understanding. Positive relationships with others are more easily made, in turn helping children to develop better communication skills, conflict resolution skills, and emotional intelligence, which will serve them well throughout their lives.
What toys and Apps can parents provide for their children to help promote gender equality and inclusivity?
Providing gender-neutral toys, such as blocks, puzzles, and art supplies, can help children explore their interests and express themselves freely without feeling constrained by gender stereotypes.
Books such as ‘Red: A Crayon’s Story’ by Michael Hall, and ‘I am Jazz’ by Jazz Jennings represent diverse gender identities which can help children to understand and appreciate different perspectives and experiences, and there are many apps and games available that promote inclusivity and diversity, such as ‘Toca Life World’, which allows children to create their own characters and scenes without gender constraints.
Roleplay activities that allow children to explore different roles and professions are great to help break down gender stereotypes and encourage children to explore their interests freely.
How can parents and the wider family help?
Encouraging children to explore a range of interests, regardless of whether they are typically associated with their gender will help them to develop their talents and skills and break down gender stereotypes.
Using inclusive language, such as avoiding gendered pronouns and using gender-neutral language where possible, teaches children to understand that gender is not the only determinant of identity or behaviour.
Challenging gender stereotypes by questioning and discussing them can be a powerful way of making children consider and question how toys, the media and their peers, can reinforce gender stereotypes and how this can be harmful.
Organisations such as mermaidsuk.org.uk and youngminds.org.uk provide information for parents whose children identify as transgender or gender non-conforming to help them better understand their child’s experiences and the support they may need.
Challenging embedded gender stereotyping requires action from all corners of society. How parents role-model, how schools teach, how toy companies design and market toys, and how the media portray individuals from diverse genders, all affect gender socialisation.
Encouraging children to interact with each other in a way that is respectful and inclusive of all genders, and allowing them to express themselves freely without worrying about fitting into gendered expectations is a great starting point. By simply challenging stereotypes in the many different areas of life in which they arise, we can all make a contribution to tackling gender inequalities for our children now and throughout their lives.