©ourtesy of Sally Peck
But was Henry being a “typical boy” or a typical 18-month-old who, after 20 minutes of hushed tones, had hit his limit?
As we left the museum I asked my daughter, who is three, whether she thinks girls and boys are different. Antonia replied, “Girls can do anything boys can do.” After a moment’s reflection, she added: “But they are different, because girls get purple and boys get green.”
What? “I thought it was pink and blue,” I said. “Those, too,” she replied.
Strict gender segregation in clothing, toys and activities is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I was a child in the 1980s, everyone wore OshKosh dungarees and built with blocks. My children wear dungarees, too, but the bibs of theirs are prominently embroidered with “OshKosh Girl” or “OshKosh Boy” in curly script. The categories of boy and girl seem to have become as rigid as those of horse and cow.
It’s perplexing: many neurologists and psychologists argue that girls and boys are far more alike than they are different. But studies show that, from the moment they are born, they are treated differently: parents talk to girl babies more; they spend longer comforting female children; they let boys play further away from them than girls.
The psychologist Dr Christia Spears Brown, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky, tells me that male and female babies are equally lively. But boys become far more active as they grow older – because, she says, parents encourage their sons to be sporty while girls are urged to be patient and quiet.
Others suggest that dressing girls in pretty shoes and dresses, and complimenting them on their looks, teaches them to place excessive value on their appearance. Embarrassing boys out of playing with dolls could be discouraging their nurturing instincts.
“The stereotypes we see in toy marketing connect with the inequalities we see in adult life,” says Jess Day, a mother of two and a member of Let Toys Be Toys, a group that campaigns against toys being labelled for boys or girls. “By late primary age, research by the Welsh organisation Chwarae Teg shows that children already have very clear ideas about the jobs that are suitable for boys and girls – ideas that are very hard to shake later on.”
A growing number of parents, educators and governments want to redress this by making the world “gender-neutral”. The idea is to make all things available to all children. Pink isn’t banned. Rather, it’s up for grabs.
More subtly, and onerously, it means being careful about language and behaviour so, for example, boys are given the same amount of attention as girls when they are upset, to counteract the assumption that girls are more emotional and boys are naturally braver.
This, they say, is the way to stop women being too “nice” to ask for equal pay in the workplace and men from being too stoical to ask for help when they need it. (Men persistently account for the majority of suicides worldwide and 78 per cent of suicides in Britain).
From nurseries in Sweden to America’s most prestigious universities, the very labels of “boy” and “girl” and pronouns like “he” and “she” are threatened with banishment. It all sounds rather self-conscious and awkward. Perhaps most derided is the Swedish unisex personal pronoun, hen, which is used to replace han (he) or hon (she). Two years after it entered the country’s national encyclopaedia, “hen” still elicits an eye-roll from even the most ardent gender-neutral parenting advocates.
Still, the gender-neutral movement is growing. Toca Boca makes gender-neutral game apps for children. It has had 70 million downloads in 169 countries, including Saudi Arabia. They are second only to Disney for children’s downloads in Apple’s App Store. (Interestingly, Apple is one of the few retailers to organise children’s apps by age instead of boy and girl categories.)
Nestled in a warehouse-style building in one of central Stockholm’s toniest areas, Toca Boca shares a cobbled courtyard with the headquarters of Björn Borg’s underwear empire. So far, so Swedish. But there’s more than a dash of Silicon Valley inside: the Toca Boca staff is cheerful and young with a positively Californian earnestness. When I arrive, they’re clearing up from a staff party the previous day, in which they’d transformed the entire open-plan office into a race track modelled on Toca Boca Cars so staff members’ children could race about, bumping into everything just like in the game.
Toca Boca games are silly and witty. Toca Kitchen, for example, involves preparing meals and then seeing if the characters like the flavours. Often, the child’s concoctions are met with disgust.
Each time the team creates a new game, they ask themselves, “Are characters of different genders able to perform the same actions in the app?” They are painstaking in their attention to gender bias in colour schemes, too. This is worlds away from the pink versus blue segregation one sees in the average toy store.
Back in Britain, I talk to Kate Pietrasik, the founder of Tootsa MacGinty, a unisex children’s clothing label stocked in Selfridges, Fenwicks and independent boutiques across the UK. “Fashion for children matters,” says Pietrasik. “Because unfortunately the first thing someone notices is what you look like.” And that affects the way they treat you. Pietrasik herself is intimidatingly chic, in a way that hints at the years she spent living in France: neat brown bob, leather jacket, Breton top.
Katarina Lundell, the head of design at the unisex Swedish brand Polarn O Pyret (which is stocked by Mothercare and John Lewis) points out that hand-me-downs are far easier when they’re unisex. Economy may well be a reason for the growing popularity of unisex clothing, in the UK and elsewhere.
I ask Lundell why she doesn’t capitalise on the commercial opportunity in segregating for boys and girls. “Until they hit puberty, girls and boys have the same bodies,” she says. “Why should I make separate clothes for them?”
Two years ago, Let Toys Be Toys was founded, inspired by a heated Mumsnet discussion. “Boys and girls need the chance to develop in all areas,” declares its website. “Action, construction and technology toys are predominantly marketed to boys while social role play and arts and crafts toys are predominantly marketed to girls. Both boys and girls miss out this way.” Fourteen national British retailers, including M&S, Boots and Debenhams, have agreed to the group’s calls to stop using “girls” and “boys” signs.
Some parents have taken more drastic action. Beck Laxton, who lives in Cambridge, was so concerned about stereotyping she tried to keep her son’s gender a secret for five years, writing about the experiment on her “Beckblog”.
Today, Sasha is eight. Laxton tells me, “we don’t watch any live TV – there are too many stereotypes there. And we avoid going to toyshops because of the pink and blue aisles.”
A Canadian couple, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, who live off – grid in a forest and home school their elder children, are attempting the same with their third child, Storm, who is nearly four. “Sometimes Storm says ‘I’m a girl,’ and sometimes Storm says ‘I’m a boy,’” Witterick told a Canadian newspaper last year.
They’re following in the footsteps of a Swedish child known as Pop, who made headlines some years ago. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead,” Pop’s mother said at the time. How beneficial any of this is for the children involved has been hotly debated.
According to Laxton, Sasha has developed a slight distrust of authority. He’s not into football, and has a mixed set of friends; to his last birthday party, he invited four boys and two girls.
“Most ordinary mums will say: ‘Yeah, but boys and girls are different,’” says Siobhan Freegard, a mother of three and a founder of Netmums, one of Britain’s largest parenting websites. Freegard is both glamorous, with long, looked-after blonde hair, and no-nonsense. “Parents don’t really get what the point is of campaigns like Pink Stinks,” which fights gender stereotypes.
Angela Spencer, who has owned and operated nurseries for the past 21 years, agrees. “Boys and girls develop differently, socially and emotionally,” she tells me. “The anatomy of boys and girls is different and their subsequent developmental needs are different. In this ‘gender-neutral’ trend, we are running the risk of losing gender identity completely.”
A decade ago, Dr Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, published an enormously influential book. The Essential Difference argued that the female brain is built for empathy, whereas the male brain is hardwired for building systems. Dr Baron-Cohen’s theory is part of a body of work, from academic journals to self-help bestsellers such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, that supports the conventional wisdom that men and women are different. But just as many studies suggest these differences are wildly overstated – and that, where they exist, they are learned, not innate. Nurture rather than nature.
Whatever the truth, these are bad times for gender equality in Britain. The UK has dropped to 26th place in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, behind Nicaragua, Bulgaria and Burundi. Women make up a declining percentage of the workforce in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) despite the boom in these sectors.
It’s a similar picture in America, where several Silicon Valley firms stand accused of tolerating a misogynistic “brogrammer” culture that freezes out female employees and reinforces the idea that technology is for men.
Meanwhile, Niobe Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, has shown that boys become disproportionately lonely and depressed in adulthood, as they strive for the masculine ideals of independence, strength and success.
Changes are underway to combat these issues. France has imposed sex-equality lessons in primary schools and gender equality training for all student teachers. Irish politicians are calling for an update to the primary school rulebook, which currently explicitly dictates that cookery, laundry and domestic economy are girls’ subjects, while manual instruction classes are listed as being “for boys only”.
But Sweden is the Promised Land of the “gender-neutral” movement. Sweden’s war on gender discrimination started in 1998, when it published its national curriculum for preschools. It requires nurseries to “counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles”.
Sweden has also implemented the world’s most generous parental leave plan. And, while it is not universally taken up, the streets of Stockholm are well populated with tall, bearded, hipster dads pushing prams when I visit. In the shops, toys are grouped by category of play, and the colours are bright and varied. I see a princess dress on display accessorised with a pirate hat. It reminds me of an image from a Swedish catalogue that went viral two years ago: Spider-Man pushing a baby buggy.
Sweden has gone to extraordinary lengths to impose gender neutrality in classrooms, regularly filming teachers’ interactions with children and analysing them for gender bias. I visit Banérporten nursery, which occupies the bottom two stories of a concrete apartment building in the leafy neighbourhood of Östermalm in central Stockholm. The teachers here meet for weekly self-criticism sessions in which their colleagues share observations of sexist behaviour, and other mistakes. They sound positively Maoist.
Wandering through the nursery, I’m surrounded by the trappings of early education: home play areas filled with dolls, building areas, quieter spaces for writing and drawing.
Of the 32 children, aged between one and five, most of the girls have long hair. So do about a third of the boys. Two of the girls with short hair are wearing bright pink tops. And so is Thorsten, a four-year-old boy with a tight crop.
“The girls know they’re girls, the boys know they’re boys – of course!” Bergstrom says, her eyes laughing at my Anglo prudery. “We are more interested in other differences – for example, some of the children are already reading, so they need to be given books. We need to carefully pay attention to where each child is in his or her development. That’s far more important than gender.”
Elisabeth Hedborg seems to be living the post-equality dream: a successful lawyer for the Swedish government whose year-old son is currently being looked after full-time by his father, who is on paternity leave. But while the country may be raising a generation of assertive girls in the mould of Pippi Longstocking, she’s concerned things have gone too far. A poised professional who chooses her words carefully, she harbours serious concerns about her son’s future. “Boys are actually less valued in some circles in contemporary Sweden,” says Hedborg.
Frida Andén, a Swedish IT consultant and mother of two girls, echoes her concerns. “Historically, equality has been more of an issue for girls. But today, I’d be more worried as the mother of a boy. Girls do better in schools and jobs. More girls go to university. Gender neutrality isn’t just a matter of letting girls do stuff – it’s about helping boys to express their emotions, and understand their feelings.” She believes Sweden still “fails to prepare boys for life.”
On the plane back to London, I reflect on this. I want my daughter to feel that she can be or do anything she likes. I want my son to feel the same. When I seem him play with a baby doll, I hope that this will translate into an enthusiasm for fatherhood. But when I see my daughter with a baby, the feminist in me worries: does she feel restricted?
In August, Antonia asked – for the thousandth time – if I would buy her a baby buggy. She has two dolls whose maintenance she takes (sporadically) quite seriously. For the thousandth time, I rolled my eyes, groaned, and said: “Wouldn’t you like to be a doctor? Or an astronaut? I’d be happy to buy you a stethoscope or a spacesuit.”
“Mother,” she remonstrated, “I would like to be a doctor. But I have two babies. I need somewhere to put my babies so they’re safe while I am being a doctor.” I bought a buggy. It’s pink. That’s fine.
“Are boys and girls different?” asks Kim Carnell, the mother of the seven-year-old Spider-Man fan. “Some are. But girls and girls are different. My oldest and youngest daughters are definitely into stereotypically girly activities, whereas Abbie definitely isn’t.”
It seems an incredibly regressive step to be telling children what they can and can’t like, wear or do, based on whether they’re boys or girls. And one that is potentially harming their long-term prospects. “They should be able to do whatever they like,” says Carnell. It’s hard to disagree.