The first toy aisle at Target is blue. Blue turbo Nerf guns, blue Hot Wheels sets with flaming decals, and an Avengers action figure set — in blue-lined packaging. In aisle two, just three feet away, every Barbie, baby doll, and toy stroller package is pink.
Gender inclusivity would make all of these toys just toys. It would design the dolls as both boys and girls, build the toy trucks in colors other than blue, and stop pointlessly gendering things like toothpaste and yogurt in the rest of the store’s aisles. Even the pens labeled “for her…” — they would just be pens.
Gender equality is on the rise in adult settings in the U.S. – colleges, workplaces, politics. Over 150 colleges and universities now have gender-blind housing options, and legislation to create equal pay for men and women is working to close the wage gap. But some parents and education professionals argue that equality should be taught to a much younger audience: elementary students. Now, decades after petitions for change in higher education and government have begun, the call for gender equality is finally trickling down.
Chardie Baird, an associate professor of sociology at Kansas State University, has studied the interactions of education, family, and gender closely since the early 2000s. And while this gender-concerned trend isn’t news to her, seeing people act on the concern certainly is. “I don’t know that we weren’t talking about this rigid gender socialization of children in previous decades,” Baird says. “Why it didn’t pick up steam is a different question.”
Baird attributes this new steam to incremental gender-equal changes in the workforce. “As that has gotten more accepted, you can move to other areas,” Baird says. “And how we raise children is one of those areas — a really important one. We’ve been talking about how restrictive gender socialization is for decades. But now we’re really doing something about it.”
Recognizing the Movement
Teaching without limiting students by gender goes further than echoing the age-old lessons to “include everyone and play nice.” Today’s wave of gender-equal teaching begins silently. It starts with teaching administrators and those in the classroom what not to say.
“A big piece of doing this in the classroom is taking a look at what you already do structurally,” says Cheryl Greene, a regional consultant at Welcoming Schools. The national diversity training organization provides professional development for elementary teachers in the Midwest. “How do you separate kids? How do you group them? If any of this is by gender,” she says, “we ask you to look at this and ask why would that be necessary.” A kid’s self-perception hasn’t been tainted by society’s gender expectations.
A study published by the scientific journal Sex Roles established the importance of flexible gender role attitudes, which free kids from gender-stereotypical activities. This way, a student’s self-perception isn’t tainted by society’s gender expectations. Students who aren’t taught gender stereotypes are less likely to think only women cook and only men mow the lawn and more likely to think they can do anything they enjoy. The study poses that, if teachers don’t put rigid gender boundaries on students, this generation could be unrestricted by the ‘pink is for girls, blue is for boys’ sexist mentality. Introducing: the purple generation.
“From very, very early on, we’ve put people into a binary,” Greene says. “Stripping that back is very difficult. It’s something that involves bringing families in and talking about why that’s not OK. Kids come in with values from their families based on what they’re told.”
Many parents today agree that it’s time to remove gender stigmas from classrooms — starting, at least, in their own households. It’s what Joe DeProspero, a father of three and blogger for Parents and HuffPost, has stressed in his. “I don’t think it’s a school’s responsibility to push kids any one way or the other,” he says. “When you take that doll out of the child’s hand, as simple as it seems, you’re stifling their creativity. And for what? Because you don’t believe that’s something that a boy should do? That’s not how I want to raise my children.”
While the gender-inclusive movement starts by avoiding typical gender stereotypes, the next phases are more active and educational. Welcoming Schools, for example, produces videos, lessons plans, and books that highlight “teachable moments” during a school day — like how to interrupt and respond to gender-biased comments or name-calling. Welcoming Schools also suggests using the terms “students” or “children,” rather than “boys and girls.”
To Prospero, though, drawing the line is necessary. He doesn’t want to eliminate gender identity entirely. “I don’t want to be in a society where I can no longer say ‘I have a son.’ I don’t think there’s anything wrong with specifying ‘he’s a male, and she is a female.’” When educators and parents draw this line in different places, however, tensions can arise. How much influence should parents have on the classroom? How much influence should educators have on a teacher, and vice versa?
Greene says parents and schools can avoid conflict over the issue. “We make things really, really easy,” Greene says. “It’s about respect. Everything that we do, whether we’re talking about gender, sexual orientation, or different types of families, we’re talking about respect.”
If opinions on what the children should or shouldn’t learn become arguments, Greene and the other Welcoming Schools consultants turn back to that core value: “It’s a little hard to argue if we always put it in this framework. You can think what you want, but it’s not OK to treat people disrespectfully.”
DeProspero believes the key to balancing schools’ and parents’ rights is to trust what the children want. This includes not intentionally forcing children to cross gender norms. “I never tell my son ‘Play with this doll, I really want you to play with this doll’ or ‘Purple has to be your favorite color.’ I’m just not in favor of pushing them one direction or the other. I let them make up their own minds.”
And that’s a belief that dances on the line dividing nurture versus nature: How much of what a child wants is a product not of societal norms but of inherent biology? Baird believes we can’t answer this question quite yet. “Until you stop enforcing it so strictly, how do you know what’s nature and what’s nurture?” she says. “In our nurture, we do so much so early to children that there’s no space for us to have an idea of what’s nature.”
Regardless of the outcome of this largely insoluble argument, gender roles will continue as fixtures in our society. But for activists like Greene, Baird, and DeProspero, the goal is to at least remove the predetermination directing what people of that gender should or shouldn’t do.
To see what lies ahead for the gender-equal movement in the U.S., advocates look to other countries that have paved the way. Their main inspiration is Sweden. Back in 1994, the country developed a gender-neutral pronoun, ‘hen,’ and has since been named the fourth most gender-equal country in the world by the World Economic Forum. Today, Sweden’s gender-neutral preschools, changing rooms, and public restrooms are considered normal. Fifteen newspapers are using the unisex pronoun. Clothing and toy manufacturers, including the Nordic distributors of the international brand, Toys “R” Us, have also begun to remove labels on their products that specify a target sex and to publish gender-neutral catalogs.
Baird hopes these international ideas will continue to grow in the U.S. “At its core, it’s a simple idea,” she says. “Expose your children to as wide of a range of interests as you can and see what they’re interested in. Let them do it. And support other people who are letting their children do the same.”