In February this year the Swedish Minister for Integration and Gender Equality, Nyamko Sabuni, made a brilliantly nuanced speech at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. During her speech, she proposed, “Good quality education is essential in the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment”. However, for one pre-school in Sweden, it seems gender “neutrality” is the key to progress.
In an attempt to tackle “gender bias”, the Egalia pre-school of Stockholm has decided that pronouns may have a hand in jeopardizing gender equality. Consequentially, students will not be subjected to the use of “him” and “her”, and shall be addressed merely as “friends”. A teacher interviewed on this recent development said, “society expects girls to be girly, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing”, adding that the Egalia technique “gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be”. But does it? Are children really blank canvases?
This story is reminiscent of similar approaches, such as the Canadian parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, who believed raising a child in a gender free home will give their child, Storm, the “freedom” to choose who he (or she) wants to be. A cursory glance at such articles may appear warm and cozy, perhaps evoking nods of approval for such a seemingly progressive approach. Yet, underpinning these stories seems to be a distinct lack of reality about the world in which we live. Is this the start of a new trend in education, or an approach based on naivety and idealism? While this is not one hundred per cent clear, what is noticeable is that the focus of the news is on the progressiveness on the parents and teachers behalf, and not on the children who are effectively guinea pigs for this trial.
It seems doubtful that “gender” is a mere social construction which can be manipulated and changed at will. Whilst it is true that culture and society do have certain effects on the genders, it has to be acknowledged that there are distinct biological differences, which will always separate the genders, regardless of Liberal social engineering projects.
A particular case in point comes from research conducted by Harvard, which showed that women had a larger limbic cortex (responsible for regulating emotions) than men. In men, the parietal cortex (regulating space perception and sexual behaviour) was found to be larger. The finding of such research proposes that differences in the brain are the cause of, rather than the result of, diversity in attitudes between males and females. Differences such as this can invariably affect the way girls and boys learn and behave in the classroom, despite social conditioning. Professor John Corso of Penn State University conducted a wealth of research into gender differences during the 50s and 60s, noticing that girls have superior hearing to males. The implications of such research would imply that boys may be better seated closer to their teacher, but would this be gender bias?
To overlook or deny gender differences in education may be detrimental, just as it is in medicine. Dr Eleanor Fish of the University of Toronto proposed that even drug makers are ignoring key gender differences when developing medicines, saying, “When we develop drugs and diagnostics, we fail to adequately recognize these differences.” Does this make her a chauvinist? Certainly not.
Surely by this point, the idea of gender neutrality in society seems doubtful, given the importance of acknowledging our fundamental differences. In an open minded, intellectual society where diversity is synonymous with equality, egalitarianism may have turned on its head if believes that inequality must be tackled by denying difference. Attitudes such as this would make tolerance an impossible endeavour if applied universally.
Unfortunately, it seems that for some people, little boys and girls acting stereotypically is undesirable. Whilst the rhetoric of the Egalia programme stresses the freedom to be “whoever they want to be”, one would suspect that if the children continued to act stereotypically, the project would be regarded as “ineffective”, or “failed”.
Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at the University of California, echoed this sentiment by stating “The kind of things boys like to do – run around and turn sticks into swords – will soon be disapproved of”, adding “So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness.”
During Sabuni’s speech to the UN, she highlighted the real threats to gender inequality and freedom saying that “every single day, thousands of girls are told that their duty is to be a wife, not a student.” She also noted “These traditions, often rooted in religion and culture, are not in the best interest of girls. They represent clear and unacceptable obstacles to their enjoyment of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This will involve confronting uncomfortable and distressing subjects such as teenage pregnancy, forced child marriage of even female circumcision.
Rather than use money and resources to fund laughably obscure projects, such as the Swedish Science Council’s grant of $80,000 to fund research into “the trumpet as a symbol as gender”, we should hope that more in society follow Mrs. Sabuni’s lead and face the genuine issues with bravery, integrity and honesty.