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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Gender Dialogue

This is a post written in March 2013, and that I am now moving to this blog and editing the post at the same time. As I feel that in the five and half years that have passed I have learned more about this topic (and still have plenty left to understand properly). This post though is not focussing on full gender diversity... but on the male female dialogue.

The parts in italics are my thoughts from 2013... the rest are reflections from today.

Sometimes I think the discussions about gender are wrong. I feel that somehow the focus is always about giving more to either boys or girls (there always seems to be a focus on one of the genders) or at least this is how so many are interpreting it - and this I think can cause friction, as there is often the feeling that if you are giving someone something you are taking it away from another - in other words that if we are giving women power it means we are taking it away from men or vice versa.

I believe that the focus should be equality - that there is no taking away, that there is only adding on.

This is something I still feel strongly about and feel I have got better at explaining over the years, with the image of a line of difference... the men higher than the women... but that the fulcrum is set under the males rather than in the middle... so that to create equality it is only about increasing the status of women, and never about decreasing the status of men.

In the preschool arena this can mean that we do not take all the pink and girlie things away to make them equal to the boys, but we ensure that there is enough of all sorts of toys/materials and enough access to all the the materials for all genders.

I remember in the early days of my preschool teaching life that I found that my attempts to create equality was to make it more boy-like. On Fridays we had film time at one preschool I worked at, and a lot of thought used to go into what film we should watch. I ALWAYS excluded the Fairytopia films (that were very popular with my own preschool-aged twin girls at the time) because they were so "girlie", and then I realised that it was not fair to either the boys or girls that I did this - so I brought the Barbie Fairytopia film and the children watched it - and it was the BOYS who showed the greater interest in the film - suddenly a whole new world was opened up to these 3-6 year olds with a variety of characters and a female as the lead role who showed fear and bravery, generosity and friendship - and yes its coated in a thick layer of pink.

Recently I put fairies in the magic world we created at preschool where I work now - and watched a car-crazy boy lovingly pick up the fairy, give it hugs and then proceed to play - there were also cars available and it was a girl who had the fairies driving the cars.

In the last 6 years I have organised the International Fairy Tea Party - a global celebration of play and imagination. What I noticed is that in many places around the world there is a reluctance for the boys to be fairies... and they will come as elves, or some other magical creature. The same happened at the preschool I worked at, the first year the parents send their boys as something other than a fairy... but in the years after the boys and girls came as fairies, as the children insisted, and the parents listened... we had explored what is a fairy, we explored how does a fairy look like... and we threw out the stereotypes that were limiting the boys to partake on equal terms. The boys loved the magic, the wings, the flying just as much as the girls. Depriving them of this play because it is a "girl" thing I think is incredibly sad... and also shows that girl play is less valued than boy play, as seldom have I come across parents who would not let their daughters dress up as pirates, construction workers and other roles usually stereotyped as boy-play.

By adding lots to the play environment (especially loose parts) I am contributing to diversity, to the opportunity to try out new things and to express more "languages". So mixing cars, trains, dolls,loose parts, blocks, animals etc - there is something for everyone, and the possibility to try something new.

There is a kind of gender spectrum with girlie girl on one end and boyish boy on the other - and somewhere on this spectrum we can all be found, regardless of our sex. It is our gender that can be found ANYWHERE on the spectrum, so a child who is biologically a boy can be found closer to the girlie girl end than the boyish boy end - it doesn't make him any less a boy - this is his sex, but by limiting what he can do, like, and have access to, does limit him as a person, it makes him less true to who he is - and the same applies to the girls. What is important is not to take away, but to allow a child to explore their whole identity. To explore a full range of emotions and not just the stereotyped ones that are assigned to the biology. Boys can be sad, should cry to release that emotion. Girls can be boisterous and should not be suppressed.

Just like a rainbow merges from red into yellow through a whole variety of orange shades, and from yellow to blue through a whole variety of green shades and then back to red through a variety of purples - this is how we are as gender - some are clearly primary colours we see the likes and interests and we can see them as typical boy/girl (the girlie girl and the boyish boy)- but the majority of the rainbow is made up of all the other shades - and by treating all children as a primary colour we are robbing them of their complexity. Maybe, and now I am rambling my thoughts somewhat - we are all white light... we are the WHOLE rainbow - just as there are 100 languages.

Its funny because I am going round doing housework and this dialogue is churning around in my thoughts.

It's made me think more about WHY are some people against gender equality - and I am beginning to think that it is more and more this fear of "taking away" - that NEUTRAL means that everyone has to be the same - I mean neutral is a little like that - its like taking away your opinion.

OK, this is a radical thought - but Sweden was a neutral country during WW2 - what did this mean? - it meant that no side was taken - it meant that there was no agreeing with the Nazi point of view or with the Allies point of view (and Reggio started from the rubble of WW2 - if it hadn't been for the war maybe the need for the approach might not have arisen...)

BUT back to what I think neutral is in this context - in a sense it means not making a decision - and really we need to be making a decision about what gender equality is - we need to think do we agree with gender coded toys or not?

Do we want to do something about it?

Do we accept how we view females and males?

Do we want to do something about it?

If we are neutral we are allowing everything to continue - but within the preschool (as within Sweden during the war) there will be those who believe in one of the approaches and who will maybe follow that, maybe in secret - as there is no openness to discuss the codes, and what they mean and how they should be challenged. ... just as in Sweden there were those who helped hide the persecuted from the Nazis and there were those who helped the Nazis persecute those deemed "unsuitable". We hide behind neutrality and maybe think we are doing something about gender equality, but I feel like its more of an ostrich sticking its head in the sand - if you can't see what's going on you don't need to do anything...

Reflection December 2013

When I read this, I read it with passion every time. I really do feel frustrated when I discuss with others about the word "hen" (in Swedish the word hon is she and the word han is he... the word hen has been created so we do not have to specify gender) and they roll their eyes... I am not about taking away a person's gender identity - but at times I find "hen"i really useful - especially when I am writing about or talking about a child and I don't want others to make assumptions based on the child's sex but on the child's actions - it DOES make a difference. It is why when I write I TRY not to reveal if I am writing about a girl or a boy when I write my blogposts - so that you as a reader can make your own assumptions on the work based on their skills... sometimes though it IS important to reveal more about the identity of the child than just the age... I also like to use the word hen, when telling children about a person that is coming to fix something at the preschool... instead of giving jobs a gender, we are allowing the children to think that they could possibly do that job, regardless of their own gender. Most people tend to call plumbers, electricians etc for he/him (and yes they tend to be a male dominated profession) - but maybe that is because from a young age we are gender coding what jobs children can dream about... and the limit starts already in preschool.

I think it can be very hard, even here in Sweden, to have proper discussion about gender equality when the media still represents women and men the way they do - how do we support the PARENTS to allow their sons to dress up as princesses (I seldom find parents worrying the same about girls dressing as knights as they do worry about boys dressing as girls - and this is probably due to the fact that males still have a higher status than females) - how do we give teachers and parents the tools to question what they see? There are too few of us to influence now much more than what we are doing already as media is just so strong - but we can influence the future,

Culture is more than skin deep and ways for thinking for many are very hard to change (there is the saying, you can't teach an old dog new tricks) - which is sad - I think there are many brilliant people working for the gender equality - but they are often met with hostility - as there is that fear of taking things away - they feel the word "hen" is taking children's identity away (and yet forget there are many languages that do not have separate words for he/she - for example Finnish).

At my work I try to do the rough and tumble, the picking up and stuff my dad did with me as a child (not my mother) - I want the children to see that strength has nothing to do with gender - mind you my height has always given me the edge for that - I have worked with 13 male teachers over the years - only 3 of them have been taller than me! (I also think that children need plenty of positive body contact to feel safe).

A few years ago I worked at a preschool where we had a consultant that came once a week to help us with our work with gender - and she came into my department and criticised the dress up clothes in the role-play area - "there is too much pink - what are the boys going to wear?" - I looked at her and said "why can't boys wear pink?" - again back to this thought that making a preschool gender equal is making it gender neutral -

I DO NOT WANT a gender neutral preschool - I want to work at a place that celebrates all the differences that we as individuals bring to the group - to embrace these differences, to allow each individual to reach their own potential by having access to a rich diversity of materials - to find their voice, their multitude of languages, and to hone the one that they themselves feel is true to them, as well as test out new unexplored areas of themselves... a gender neutral preschool does not allow diversity it is yet another way of cutting a child's unique shape into the conformed square of social acceptance - it is not the child that needs to change it is society that needs to change.

I think CHOOSING to use the words gender neutral is so loaded - I feel its means taking away/restricting - think neutral colours - they are those colours that are not bright, vibrant - they are just PART of the colour scheme that makes up life - why only offer part of life? If boys are not getting to play with dolls at preschool and not at home then where are they going to play with them - when will they get the opportunity to test this language out? To practice being a dad... exploring what a mother does... etc

If we are going to take trucks and diggers away - what are we saying about that?

WHAT exactly are you doing to create a gender neutral preschool?

Is it taking things away?

Gender codes are only codes if WE allow them to be - let us BREAK the codes instead of allowing them to continue. By making it neutral we are still allowing the codes to exist elsewhere - by breaking them down and allowing these gender coded toys/materials to be used by all and in new ways - THEN we are creating a better chance of equality... (trying to challenge thoughts here)

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