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Giving birth to gender

August 12, 2014

It was as the emergency cart was being transferred into the ambulance and one of the officers asked me if I was having a boy or a girl that I realised just how strongly tuned we are to focussing on sex and gender.

An emergency call-out, a woman 36 weeks pregnant and bleeding with life-threatening complications, and these highly-trained professionals still can’t hide their curiosity around what’s inside.

As if it makes a difference.

Within 20 minutes of arriving at the birthing unit and I have already been asked by three nurses and the registrar what I’m having. Each greet the reply with their own individualised response. A positive comment, a knowing nod, a pleasing gush.

An hour later and the specialist who will eventually decide to play the waiting game for a couple of days comes in, “So, do you know what you’re having?”

I want to reply with, “A baby I hope”; but my anxiety for his prognosis prevents me.

It’s not until we are actually in theatre two days later and the entire surgical team strikes up a conversation about how the balance between births of boys and girls this week is already out of kilter that I realise this obsession with sex is not confined by intelligence, schooling, status etc; it’s all-pervasive.

These observations had started much earlier in my pregnancy. On a regular visit to the local maternity ward, I overheard a conversation between a midwife and an expecting mother. The woman was in the early stages of labour, but the baby was a little overdue.

Midwife: ‘Do you know what you’re having?’

Expecting mother: ‘We’ve been told it’s a boy.’

Midwife: ‘Ah, yes well that would fit with the rest of this picture. As most midwives would tell you, it’s always the naughty ones giving you grief that are boys…’
Perhaps it was purely to break any tension but it illustrated a well-perpetuated stereotype, unfairly levelled before this baby has even left the womb.

It struck me just how widely accepted is this ridiculous notion: boys are expected to be ‘troublesome, rough-and-tumble, more aggressive’.

If they are labelled as ‘troublesome’ in the womb by the very medical professionals who help to welcome them into the world, what hope do they have of escaping this stereotype as they grow, attend school, enter the workforce?

Think about the connotations of this … if boys are expected to be trouble from the outset, what sort of behaviours do we allow, tolerate and even encourage simply because the person displaying them is male?

How much influence does a continually-perpetuated stereotype, conveying expectations about ‘normal behaviour’, have on influencing actual behaviours?

According to Nancy Lombard, Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at Glasgow Caledonian University, “Authority figures such as teachers are more likely to turn a blind eye to boys being violent towards girls. When the girls told teachers that a boy had hit or pushed them teachers normalised the behaviour by saying that it was the boys way of trying to get attention, or “that’s just what boys do.”

Authority figures reinforcing damaging stereotypes to children.

Condoning violent and aggressive behaviour from boys towards girls (and presumably towards each other).

All the while it is widely acknowledged we need to do just the opposite if we are to avoid perpetuating inequality and violence.

“In Australia, one in three women have experienced physical violence and almost one in five have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15,” says CEO of the Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children, Paul Linossier. “The facts speak for themselves and are completely unacceptable. Violence against women has major personal, social and economic costs. We must address inequalities in power, challenge gender stereotypes and promote behavioural and attitudinal changes so that this issue is no longer justified, excused or hidden.”

We need to educate the midwives reinforcing gender stereotypes by labelling boys as ‘naughty’ in the womb; the dental nurse who asks our sons ‘do you like dinosaurs?’ and tells our daughters ‘look at your pretty smile’; the shop assistant who hands over a bag to our son and remarks ‘here you go muscles’ while asking a girl ‘is that too heavy for you, princess?’.

Walk into many a toy shop and you will see just how readily we package these gender messages and sell them to our children. But it’s clearly not just toy shops promoting this self-fulfilling myth.

I know this to be so as I listen to two anaesthetists, a registrar, a gynaecologist and several nurses discuss the various virtues and qualities of boys versus girls.

Minimising the negative impact of gender stereotypes by making your children aware of them and encouraging critical thinking, is equally important to all children.

Demonstrating different versions of masculinity (and femininity) also informs and reinforces children’s ways of being.

I want to reply with, “A baby I hope”; but my anxiety for his prognosis prevents me.
The men in my family nurture, give comfort, cry, perform household chores, cook more than just barbecues … they demonstrate that males can also be vulnerable. They’re not afraid to ask for help when they need it.

As I’m taken back to ward with my new baby swaddled in a blanket one of the mid-wives rushes over, gushing “I’m sorry, we’ll get one the right colour just as soon as you’re set up.”

A day later, having spent a few hours with my baby in a non-gender-identifying singlet, a nurse breezes in with a socially-acceptable coloured singlet saying, ”We’ve been talking and it concerns us for some time that we won’t know what the baby is without this.”

“Hmmmm. A baby perhaps?” I find myself thinking.

Because a baby would need different medical treatment based on their sex?

It’s these ridiculous questions that have led some parents to give birth to, and raise, their children without the stereotypes introduced by the concepts of sex and gender.

The Laxton family in the UK felt so strongly about avoiding the harmful and limiting effects of gender stereotyping on their child, they decided not to reveal the sex of their offspring until ‘Sasha’ was around five-years-old.

“Gender (stereotyping) affects what children wear and what they can play with, and that shapes the kind of person they become. Gender stereotypes are fundamentally stupid” said Beth Laxton, Sasha’s mum.

Another family in Sweden made the same decision.

They kept the sex of their child a secret in the hope this would allow their child known to the media as ‘Pop’ “to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset. It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.” says ‘Nora’, Pop’s mum.

In the wake of pregnancy I understand their rationale.

To raise our child with the freedom to be a child – rather than imposing cultural stereotypes, expectations and judgements around the concept of ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ – is obviously still too much to ask, even in 2014.

And there is no single entity to be held accountable. We are all products of our culture, immersed and invested in different ways.

Perhaps this is why a campaign against the gendered-marketing of toys raises such emotions in people?

The Trojan horse that enters the house when a girl is given the beginning of a toy box full of pink Barbies and fairy dresses or a boy is directed towards Tonka trucks and play power drills is a powerful thing indeed.

Particularly when a gendered-mindset is endorsed by experienced medical professionals, teachers, shopkeepers and so on before birth and every day after that, parents can be forgiven for accepting the notion that there should be a notable difference between a boy and a girl. Some might even embrace that concept as a positive – rather than detrimental – approach for their child. Research and experience tell us otherwise, but social values are slow to change.

In the meantime, toy manufacturers and retailers will continue to market in the most cost-effective way possible … feeding misconception rather than focusing on fuelling children’s imaginations and development.

Post By Thea Hughes (19 Posts)

Thea spent more than a decade working in a heavily male-dominated industry, inspiring her to begin her formal studies in gender at Sydney University and to found Play Unlimited. As a parent, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.


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