Why do gender stereotypes still persist?

Recently Big Sis was cast as Mummy Bear in her class assembly. We were asked to provide at short notice (always at short notice!) a costume. Thankfully, the school were making the masks for the children, so that was not required, and as the school assembly is not such a big deal, it wasn’t so big an ask. I went with Big Sis to her dressing up box to see what we could find. Brown, long sleeve T-shirt, brown tights, pink skirt. Good, good. But these were just normal clothes. How about some dressing up stuff so Mummy Bear can be more of a character?

Here is our conversation:

Me: I know, I know [excited], why doesn’t mummy bear be a doctor and then you can carry this bag and wear this stethoscope around your neck?
Big Sis: But Mummy Bear wears an apron.
Me: She doesn’t have to, she can be a doctor. Or, I know, you can wear this fireman’s costume and Mummy bear can be a fireman.
Big Sis: Mummy bear wears an apron, because she makes the porridge.
Me: Are you sure, maybe Daddy Bear made the porridge. Your daddy makes you porridge and pancakes sometimes.
Big Sis: In the book at school, [insistent] Mummy bear makes the porridge and wears an apron.

Big Sis wore an apron.

This is the most recent in a long line of unsuccessful attempts by me to break the gender stereotypes prevalent in society.

The first was just before Big Sis’s third birthday when the nursery decided to have a whole week (!) of fancy dress. This must have been a sadistic joke on the nursery’s behalf as I saw poor children being trundled into nursery for 5 whole days wearing the same Spiderman pyjamas with working parents looking very displeased. I was also a full time working parent at the time and shared the same displeasure, but vowed that we would at least attempt 5 different costumes, however crappy. She was not yet 3 years old, so at that point in time I was still winning the war on polyester Princess dresses. The first day, she went as a cat. We had a foam-cat mask from some party she had been to, and she wore a black long sleeved T-shirt and black leggings. The second day, I had decided that she could go as a Pirate. She had a jumper with a skull and cross bones on, denim shorts and she could put a handkerchief around her head. I managed to coerce her into this outfit. She was not happy. I promised her chocolates when she got home.

Big Sis: I don’t want to be a pirate. They are boys.
Me: No, there are girl pirates as well, pirates aren’t just for boys.
Big Sis: None of the other girls will be pirates.
Me: Well, it’s nice to be something different.

I had got her to the door by now, although she was dragging her heels and not wanting to cross the threshold into the outside world. Eventually, she slumped down across the doorway in tears.

Big Sis: Why can’t I just be a Princess like everyone else?

This was too much for even a feminist like me to bear. I became tearful. Was I really going to force my daughter to do something against her will and want based on my own ideology? I made her go as a pirate but promised that she could go as a Princess the next day, and that was how the war on pink polyester was lost.

The second, was when Big Sis requested a pink stethoscope for her 4th birthday. I went to Toys R Us to purchase said stethoscope only to find that the only pink stethoscopes that they had were attached to a nurse’s uniform. The doctor’s costume was resplendent with blue stethoscope. Hmmm. I literally stood in front of the costumes for hours deliberating in my mind. Should I buy the doctor’s uniform and encourage breaking stereotypes so that she might aspire to be a doctor like me, rather than a nurse, or is it too much hassle to risk tears on her birthday and screams of “I wanted a pink one!”. There were no tears on her birthday.

The third time was when Big Sis and Lil Bro were playing together. Here is the conversation:

Big Sis: You be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse.
Me: Wait, why can’t Lil Bro be the nurse and you be the doctor?
Big Sis and Lil Bro in unison: Because doctors are boys and Nurses are girls!
Me: [in disbelief that this is happening in my own household] No they are not! I am a doctor and I am a woman.
Big Sis and Lil Bro: [look at me silent for a moment as they ponder this puzzling conundrum]
Big Sis: Yes, but he wants to be the doctor and I want to be the nurse. Anyway the nurse’s uniform has a skirt so it is for a girl.

Damn Toys R US! I knew I shouldn’t have bought the pink stethoscope!

I was glad to hear more recently that Toys R Us and other toy retailers are rethinking their gender stereotyped toys. I haven’t been recently to check out if they now sell doctor’s costumes with pink stethoscopes. For my children it is too late. What I worry about is this:

(1) If role models of working mothers and domesticated fathers are clearly available in the home, gender non-stereotyping is being actively pushed at home, how is it still not getting through that women and men can be whatever they choose? I have noticed that media portrayal of genders, at least on CBeebies (which is my children’s main exposure to media up to now) is pretty fair so the easy target of media, is not at fault this time. (Dr Ranj is male, but Nina (“Scientist”) is female and there is a female doctor and male nurse on “Me Too”). So where is this stereotyping coming from?

(2) If my children, who are the next generation, are still growing up with such defined gender stereotypes, where does this leave feminism? Has so little changed in the 30 years between myself and my daughter? Given that my children have already bought into gender stereotypes, will they be able to be stronger than me and insist that their children are brought up gender-stereotype free? Will we have to wait until our grandchildren’s generation to see if gender stereotyping can be beaten?

In my mind, the problem is so pervasive which is why it is so hard to beat. It goes beyond “pink” and “blue”. Every traditional tale and history lesson is encoded gender stereotype. Every advert from Barbie to Iceland (Why doesn’t bloody Dad go to Iceland and get the frozen goods for once?) is encoded gender stereotype. Every word we choose to use is gender stereotyped (ambitious men/ pushy women). My view is that language is a good place to start, as it is the fabric of our culture and society. To this cause I hope that you will appreciate that on this blog, where I mean “parent”, I use the word “parent”, rather than “mother”, which cannot be said for the majority of parenting scientific papers, news articles, websites and media.

There’s also very little pink.


  1. Jess

    Absolutely! 😉
    Great post- it is though such an insidious process, that starts from the second they are born, if not before. I gave big bro my old doll to play with when he was just one and he treated it just like a girl would. But I confess I haven’t given little sis a gun yet….

  2. Holan

    Thanks Jess. Yes Lil Bro also plays nicely with baby dolls, although he will occasionally also play Barbie and her friends get dumped in the dump truck. He is also encouraged to raid the shared dressing up box which generally results in a pirate/ fireman with great accessories.

  3. Pingback: A Good Question: Why do gender stereotypes still persist? | Mums Are Made
  4. top grills 2014

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    • Shrinkgrowskids

      Thanks. Yes my sister said the same. A Cambridge education, not quite what it used to be heh? Can only say I am doing this just for fun in my spare minutes between work and kids so can’t get too tied up with checking spelling and grammar! I will do my best, but hope it won’t put you off coming back!

    • Shrinkgrowskids

      Also, I noticed that your site is American and many words in English are spelt differently (center and centre) for example. Nonetheless there are no doubt many other spelling mistakes! Sorry.

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  6. Julie

    Maybe part of it is following the money: the fewer toys Lil Bro enjoys inheriting from Big Sis, the more toys you might buy for him in addition to all the toys you already bought for her…

    Some people on more than one side who make a lot of noise about gender-neutral toys having something to do with intersex and/or genderqueer kids ignore far more mundane angles. IRL sometimes having a male child and a female child doesn’t mean having some unique combination of male and female in one child but merely means having two children.

    Likewise, see the people who talk about women starting to have kids in their 40s as though women never had kids in their 40s back in the day. IRL it’s not that women had kids in their teens and 20s *instead* of their 40s, they had kids in their teens and 20s then had kids in their 30s and 40s too.

    Then there was the American politician who was all “but if she went to Planned Parenthood then how can she be a mother???” about an example given of a mother getting healthcare there.

    Why is a woman getting pregnant more than once in her lifetime such an alien concept to these people? Is this one of those “why do I need to know it if it won’t be on the test?” things?

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