On stereotyping

I see a leading Head is in the news claiming that girls are still being encouraged to become home-makers (here).

As so often, I find myself with mixed feelings here. Of course I hate any idea of girls being conditioned to feel their role is solely as a wife and mother, rather than having ambitions of their own outside the home.  But the example quoted – of a successful businesswoman admitting to putting her work ahead of her son, and the audience being shocked by this – is surely not that clear-cut.  There is a difference between suggesting that all mothers should abandon their professional ambitions and devote their entire existence to their children, and thinking that when push comes to shove, your child should take precedence.   It’s not that different to other aspects of life – for example, I love my job (and the other things I do), but if one of my parents was seriously ill, and decent care was not obtainable, then looking after them would be my priority and other things would have to give. Before anyone shouts at me – I don’t think it’s about being male or female – I’d expect a man to regard a human being as more important than the next step on the career ladder as well, if a choice had to be made.

I rather doubt that the businesswoman quoted actually meant that her work was more important than her child – I expect she was referring to occasions when she could have been going to a nativity play but had a meeting at work, or when she couldn’t produce the cakes for the school bazaar or the sticky-back-plastic and empty loo rolls for the latest craft project.  And yes, there is still a tendency in society to feel that in two-parent households, the mother is the one who will do all these things but the father will concentrate more on his job – and therein lies the bigger problem.

Whilst we do expect and encourage mothers to work and progress in their careers, as a whole we are much less accepting of fathers who adopt the traditional “maternal” role.  I am friends with a couple where the mother is the principal wage earner, and the father takes the kids to school, helps out at fetes and sorts the house out; no-one has the slightest problem with her, but he is continually given funny looks at nursery and at the school gates, and not really welcomed into the circle of the other parents (who happen to be mothers). He is a lovely bloke and does not let this get to him – he carries on being helpful, pleasant, friendly etc – but his partner (and I) feel indignant on his behalf.   Perhaps our education needs to focus more on encouraging both genders not to feel constrained by their traditional roles.

Talking of which – there’s been quite a bit of discussion recently of this video by the European Commission to try to attract girls into science. I don’t think I’ve met a single person who had anything positive to say about it. Patronising, insulting to the intelligence… but even if it wasn’t both of those, the very fact it’s called “Science – it’s a girl thing” is more than enough to put me off. We should be trying to encourage young people to break out from stereotypes, not replace the stereotypes with different ones. Science – and arts, and humanities, and careers, and childcare – are human things, not male or female ones.

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