sat 18/11/2017

No More Boys and Girls, BBC Two – baby steps lead to great leaps for children | reviews, news & interviews

No More Boys and Girls, BBC Two – baby steps lead to great leaps for children

No More Boys and Girls, BBC Two – baby steps lead to great leaps for children

A classroom becomes the first battleground for one doctor's war on gender bias

School doctor: Javid Abdelmoneim

Whether it’s the £400,000 that separates Mishal Husain from John Humphrys, or the 74 million miles between the metaphorical markers of Venus and Mars, there is a gulf between the genders. Despite legislation to enforce equality, the reality is that, right from the start, boys and girls are treated differently. Boys like trains, right? Girls like dolls… Before you know it, female students are massively under-represented in the sciences, and worrying numbers of young men think it’s OK to shout sexual threats to women on the street in the name of banter. Boys will be boys after all… but what if they weren’t?

The first of Doctor Javid Abdelmoneim’s two-part BBC Two series looking at the effects of gender stereotyping on young children stated its intent right from the off: nature accounts for very little other than the glaringly obvious, and what society often sees as hard-wired points of difference between men and women can be put down to nurture. Could this lead to a kind of attitudinal architecture that builds inequality into our system from the start? Are these the embers that stoke the furnace in which the glass ceiling is forged?

Taking a class of children born in 2010 (fittingly, the year the Equality Act became law) on the Isle of Wight, Doctor Abdelmoneim aimed to show how these attitudes can be amplified by even the most well-meaning of us, and – more encouragingly – how small changes might have a big impact.

This was, at first, profoundly depressing viewing as seven-year-old girls defined themselves solely in terms of their appearance, and associated attributes such as strength with their male counterparts. However, through a series of baby steps, the children were encouraged to see one another in very different terms. Getting rid of segregated toilets, changing reading habits and decorating the walls with motivational messages (pictured below) may seem like incidentals, but it appeared to help in informing how these little sponges saw the world. In the longer term, though, could they really prove a useful barrier to the flood of colour-coded communiqués our kids are subjected to?

No More Boys and Girls, BBC TwoWhile there was some progress in the children's outlook, the most dramatic change came when Doctor Abdelmoneim took the children to the playing field to, well… level the playing field. During an experiment to look at the pupils’ assessment of their own ability in a test of strength, one girl was left in tears after exceeding her meagre expectations. However, for one of the boys, an inability to perform left him in furious tears. His rage was a visceral reminder that gender bias does both genders a disservice – boys are often left less able to describe their emotions. Unless that emotion is anger, in which case they're like a thesaurus set to "wrath".

The methods applied weren’t entirely unproblematic. Asking the pupils to assign a gender to a word, for example, contains an implication that they have to chose one over the other. It doesn’t allow for the option of both (or neither), and this may have skewed the impression of how the kids interpreted the world. Also, personal experience has shown me that a daughter's unwelcome predilection for princesses and make-up is not itself a barrier to football skills or outrunning classmates. However, these were necessarily broad strokes in order to analyse what most already suspect to be true, and work out ways to combat it. We know deep down what the fight is; this was talking tactics.

On a positive note, the balance between analysis and sentiment was well struck. While you can’t help but feel for the children, the editing stopped well short of any kind of cloying "emotional journey" narrative. There is, though, a strong suspicion that the intensity will be ramped up in the second part. The good doctor was helped in this opener by Graham Andre, a kind and well-meaning teacher who confronted his own bias with an open mind and a willingness to change - not qualities to be underrated. Next week, it’s the turn of the pupils’ parents, and that is sure to be trickier terrain.

@jahshabby

Could small changes really prove a useful barrier to the flood of colour-coded communiqués our kids are subjected to?

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