In 2006 The World Economic Forum set up the Global Gender Gap Index to measure and compare gender inequality in countries across the globe based on economic, political, education and health criteria. Back then the United Kingdom ranked 9th. By 2012 we had slipped back to 18th position. Legally women in the UK have never been in a stronger position but time and again research shows that we are perpetuating our own subjugation- and we’re starting at home with our children.
Research conducted by PKTMNY (a website that allows parents to pay money into accounts for their children whilst providing the latter with Pre-paid Visa cards and attempting to encourage both to adopt sensible financial habits) shows that on average boys do 2 hours less of chores than their female counterparts whilst, in households where their chores are compensated, they make and save more money. PKTMNY found “significant divides based on gender, age and the nature of the task being undertaken by each child” concluding that boys and girls work was segregated with girls being responsible for repetitive daily chores (dishes, laundry, cleaning) inside the home and boys taking on more sporadic, heavy and often outdoor work (lawn mowing, maintainance) which is not only valued more but also (being visible to neighbours) more likely to lead to offers of more work.
It is not only in practice that we are training our children to accept gender divides in the workforce, the pay gap (which currently stands at women earning 20% less than men), the devaluation of domestic work and the prevailing belief that men’s careers should be prioritised over women’s. Sigmund Freud suggested that biology determines gender identity through identification with the mother or father- and children are presented with supporting examples continuously. It still tends to be mothers whose carreers are put on hold to bring up baby- and not only because their incomes are more likely to be supplementary but also because fathers are consistently excluded from taking on positive caring roles by public service providers and society at large. Where both parents work mothers still, on average, spend twice the amount of time on housework than fathers and, when a child is sick, it is more likely that it will be mum who takes time off work. In addition to this there are few men in early years education (prevented by low pay and stigma) with a growing presence in Key Stage 2 and beyond as well as in deputy and headmaster positions propounding the myth of their innate superiority.
The gender gap is very clear in education where girls do better at every stage of the National Curriculum and where post GCSE students begin to divide into preordained channels with girls tending to choose arts and humanities and boys: science and technology. What is less clear is the extent to which nature and nurture play in all of this. However from the very earliest opportunities girls and boys are treated differently by even the most earnest of modern liberal parents which can only serve to reinforce values and traits normative to gender. It has been shown that parents respond to the cries of baby girls sooner than those of baby boys, that they cuddle them more and that they are more likely to encourage boys to try new and risky activities (such as learning to walk and explore) and girls in quiet and motherly activities.
Girls are consistently complimented on their cuteness and clothes which, when repeated indefinitely, elevates both to an unhealthy importance in their minds whereas boys are more likely to be complimented on their achievements (“What a big boy you are, walking!”). Common insults too uphold gender divergence with boys maligned for “throwing like a girl” and girls bemoaned as tomboys. Even more prevalent and insidious is the tendency when gossiping about adult women to concentrate on their appearance and age (“fat old cow”) which adds further support to the notion that these are their fundamental characteristics.
At a summit on gender equality UNICEF labelled “Early childhood care key to gender equality” with their spokeswoman, Erma Manoncourt, stating that “What young children learn now and what happens to them now will influence them for the rest of their life. The early years are the most determinant of the child’s psychosocial and cognitive development”. Which is why enough stress cannot be placed on the importance of analysing and modifying our interactions with our children from the very start. We have been brought up with archaic assumptions about gender that are so ingrained that in most instances we fail even to acknowledge them but they play a real part in our life chances and satisfaction. It is only through real vigilance that we can hope to spare our children the same fate.