When it comes to breaking down gender stereotypes we have a lot to thank Billy Elliott for. Years ago a little boy shunning football for ballet may have drawn sniggers, but the noughties cult film made it acceptable for boys to want to dance. And rightly so. But it seems there is still some stigma surrounding what’s traditionally though of as a female hobby.
Earlier this week a mum sparked an online debate after asking a parenting forum how she could discourage her son from wanting to do ballet. Taking to Mumsnet the user said she’d prefer her nine-year-old son to take up football or rugby instead.
“How do I put my son off wanting to do ballet? I’m showing him how cool football, rugby and karate are but he’s having none of it,” she wrote.
But it didn’t go down well with other parents who accused the mum of being “sexist” saying she should let her son do the sport he wants.
“Let him do the thing he is interested in and actually wants to do,” wrote one user. “It’s 2016! Boys don’t just play football. Just like not all girls do ballet.”
“But he has expressed a preference for ballet; why make him do a sport he’s not interested in?” asked another.
Though the largely negative response to the mum’s original post could be taken as proof that progress has been made in the strive to break down gender stereotypes in childhood, she is likely not the only parent who would still raise concerns about their child wanting to take part in what’s seen as a traditionally male or female sport.
And the gender stigmas don’t stop with sport. When it comes to the toys children are putting on their Christmas lists, it’s likely parents will see a clear segregation in the toy aisles – frilly, pink, sparkly things for girls and science-y, action hero type things for boys.
But could sexist assumptions, whether in sport or in the toy shop, actually have a long-lasting effect on children? Some research suggests it could have implications for children’s learning and attitudes long after they have left the school playground.
Megan Fulcher, associate professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University told NYTimes that gender stereotypes could actually have an impact on future career and attitudes.
“Play with masculine toys is associated with large motor development and spatial skills and play with feminine toys is associated with fine motor development, language development and social skills,” she said.
“Children may then extend this perspective from toys and clothes into future roles, occupations, and characteristics,” she adds. Professor Fulcher was also part of a team of researchers who found that children with gender-stereotyped decorations in their bedrooms also held more stereotypical attitudes towards boys and girls.
But things are changing. Thanks in part due to the efforts of campaigns such as Pinkstinks and Let Toys Be Toys, who have been busily urging all retailers to stop categorising toys and books for one gender only.
“Toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity,” the Let Toys Be Toys website reads. “Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them. Isn’t it time that shops stopped limiting children’s imagination by telling them what they ought to play with?”
While the PinkStinks site reads “Pinkstinks is a campaign that targets the products, media and marketing that prescribe heavily stereotyped and limiting roles to young girls.”
“We believe that all children – girls and boys – are affected by the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood. Our aim is to challenge and reverse this growing trend. We also promote media literacy, self-esteem, positive body image and female role models for kids.”
And when it comes to the sports our children are being pushed towards, experts are calling for change here too. One academic believes teachers should stop segregating boys and girls in PE lessons because it is fuelling a gender “prejudice” in later life.
Sian Lawson, senior lecturer in sports coaching at Northumbria University, suggested that segregated PE lessons were an “historic hangover from Victorian values” that see boys and girls as having different needs.
Writing for Telegraph.co.uk, Dr Lawson quoted a Northumbria University study that found no physical distinction in the coaching required for elite male and female athletes.
“There’s no physiological reason why boys should play football and girls rounders, indeed in the USA soccer is a ‘girls sport’ and baseball is ‘for boys’,” she said.
“Even within the traditionally male sports women are now showing that they can compete on equal terms, despite typically receiving less training.”
And she isn’t the only academic who wants less gender segregation in sport at school. Amy Pressland, a lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia (UEA), believes that PE classes should be mixed-sex to promote better gender relations in society.
She claims that segregation of school children in sport meant that barriers were built up, and that rather than sport seen as a social activity, there was an “aura of sexuality”.
Meanwhile, research outlined in the NUT’s (National Union of Teachers) Breaking The Mould project report, Stereotypes Stop You Doing Stuff, indicates the extent to which gender stereotypes limit children’s and adults’ choices and behaviour. The project concluded that challenging these stereotypes is likely to have widespread beneficial effects in terms of improving educational and life outcomes for both sexes.
Perhaps this research will go some way to allay the fears of the original poster to encourage rather than dissuade her son from taking up ballet. Because if our children grow up believing there aren’t any gender barriers to taking up the sport of their choice, this will hopefully filter through to creating a world where adults of both sexes are treated equally.
Would you stop your child doing a traditionally male or female sport? Let us know @YahooStyleUK