My idol, Professor Mirjam Kalland, had a column in my local daily newspaper last week. She wrote about boys and girls, about gender structures and about how we value and treat people differently based on their gender. She wrote about gender discrimination and about how this affects both boys and girls as they grow up. Her column struck a chord with me because this is what I am always saying. Although a lot of people don’t realize it, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. It’s about men and women, about boys and girls, about the wellbeing of all.
There is research that shows that gender norms and structures, while still being discriminatory towards women, are not good for men either in a number of ways. One of the ways is men’s health. Gendered structures and norms affect men’s physical and mental health negatively. For example, suicide rates are, as we know, higher among men than women.
I think of this as I watch my son grow up. I have a girl and a boy, both are smart, sensitive, inquisitive, social beings and it pains me when I see how they are treated differently, for no other apparent reason than their gender.
I remember when my son was a lot younger, and nervous about going to the dentist. We have found a wonderful dentist, to make going as easy as possible and I had been taking my daughter there for a couple of years at least before I went with my son. Both the dentist and his assistant were always very kind and patient towards my daughter, making sure not to do anything until she was ready. As a parent you feel so grateful to people who are kind to your children.
Imagine my surprise when I went with my son. He needed the same time and patience, but what he got instead was a snide comment from the assistant (who was female, in case that matters), to be quiet and open his mouth so we can just get this over with and go home.
This was the nurse who had been treating my daughter completely differently for years, and when I came in with a much younger child who was nervous, but calm and polite, and was wondering what was going to happen, like his sister had often wondered, the response was be quiet and open your mouth. I’m pretty sure there was no other reason than that he was a boy and you don’t coddle boys. “How are they otherwise ever going to become men?” Have you heard that before? I have and all of a sudden, I was experiencing it too.
Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I see how little boys are treated differently than girls all the time. I’ve witnessed it at my children’s day care (which, for the record, was a wonderful place). I’ve seen girls hurt themselves and how they’ve been hugged and soothed, rightly so. I’ve seen boys hurt themselves, and handled kind of roughly when they’ve been picked up off the ground, even when they are crying. I’ve seen a little boy laughed at by a grown-up at day care when he hurt his genitals, because that was kind of embarrassing and I guess laughter just came more spontaneously than a hug.
And this is in a country that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world, where day care workers have degrees in early childhood education and care.
Well for my son, the gendered treatment continues. He is much older now and very much aware of what is going on around him. He is still sensitive, and one of the most empathetic people I know, and he sees how he and his friends get treated differently than girls in school because they are boys (again, I need to stress, he goes to a really good school).
He says boys are damned before they even open their mouths. He’s frustrated that the worst is often expected of him before he has even done anything. That he is told to be quiet when he has a question and expected to be rowdy, even though that really hasn’t been his tendency. He knows that people often don’t even realize that this is what they are doing – that they don’t necessarily do it on purpose – but the term that comes to my mind is self-fulfilling prophecy. That is how boys will start acting if that is all that is expected of them.
So no, I don’t think gender equality is a women’s issue. I think it is everyone’s issue. I think gender equality really would make the world a better place. For both girls and boys, men and women, and everyone else too!