Study shows Yorkshire primary schools need to boost girls' sporting confidence

December 2017

Stop telling girls what to like: toys, gender and the messages they send

by Totally Runable Director Nat Jackson

“A pair of hop-along boots and a pistol that shoots is the wish of Barney and Ben

Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk is the hope of Janice and Jen”

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Bing Crosby (1951)

‘Tis the season! Christmas is nearly here – over the next couple of weeks we’ll gather with friends and family, give gifts and celebrate - eating, drinking and being merry. Or at least some of us will – there’ll be less drinking and being merry for me this year as I’m around 5 months pregnant. In fact, ‘tis also the season for my 20-week scan which is happening on Monday. For me, this means we’ll be finding out on Monday whether the tiny human scheduled to make an appearance in May 2018 is a girl or a boy[1].

For starters, this seems like a bit of a weird thing to be doing. In many ways, it is a massively irrelevant piece of information. I’d much rather know something interesting about the human we’ll soon be feeding, housing and raising for the rest of our lives – like what toys they might be into, or what sports they might enjoy playing. But when I think about the work we do at Totally Runable, the Christmas toy themed adverts I’ve been seeing, and the reactions I get from the people I talk to about gender, I’ve been thinking more and more about what gender might actually signify, and how important gender might actually be to things like the toys we might be into, or what sports we might play.

Firstly, I should say I have no opinion on whether anyone else finds out the gender of their children before they are born, or how they choose to let gender norms and stereotypes affect the way they treat (or don’t treat!) their children. Parenting, I am learning, is a hugely complicated and overwhelming thing to consider and, I’m sure, to do. Without any experience whatsoever, I am massively unqualified to comment on how anyone else chooses to do it. I am however interested for my own purposes, and qualified to comment, where the boundaries of gender and stereotypes meet sport and physical activity. Because this is what Totally Runable does.

We work with girls and female school staff building confidence in sport, exercise and life. We know from research, our own as well as others’, that girls begin to doubt their sporting ability from age 7[2], that by the end of primary school boys are more likely describe themselves as “very sporty”, and girls as “quite sporty”[3], and that by Year 8 (age 13) girls are dropping out of school sport[4]. Teenage girls are also much less likely than boys to relate the skills they learn in PE to their everyday lives[5]. This got me thinking about the messages we send girls and boys around physical activity.

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read is the fabulously-titled Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine[6]. In it she unpicks some of the science behind sex and gender differences and looks at the neuroscience behind leading research claiming things like “men are from Mars and women are from Venus”. The outcomes are seriously interesting – essentially there is an increasing amount of scientific support for the view that environment and societal influences have a much greater effect on what we are good at and who we become than any predisposed characteristics relating to our gender. Essentially – if we could tell before people were born that they were left handed or right handed, and had a whole load of resulting expectations about what they would like, what they would be good at, and who they would be based purely on their left or right handedness, we would all start to define ourselves (and one another) based on our handedness. If we constantly reminded one another of whether we were left or right handed by saying things like “come on left handers” or “aren’t they a big strong right hander”, we’d reinforce these stereotypes. The scary thing is that we would also likely limit ourselves (and one another) based on the same set of assumptions. The problem is by the way that we treat people, we then create the assumptions we expect, and so the cycle plays on. Left handers grow up thinking that because they are a left hander, they will be – fill in the blank – strong, pretty, not sporty, bossy, into dolls, not into football...

Put more simply (and with a Christmas and baby theme!) – say we assume that a baby girl will like the colour pink, playing with dolls and looking pretty, but not like sport. Say the world also repeatedly reminds her that she is a girl, whilst sending her the message that girls like the colour pink, playing with dolls and looking pretty, but not sport. She will put two and two together. She will know that a) she is a girl, and b) that girls do those things and do not do sport. So because she is a girl and that’s what girls do, that’s what she does. It’s a sneaky recurring cycle. She then grows up believing lots about herself that she doesn’t question, and passes these messages on to her own daughter. Although this isn’t a parent issue – none of the parents I know are raising their children to expect less of themselves and all would tell them that they could be whoever they want to be – the problem is however gender neutral your parenting might be, the world is not a gender-neutral place, particularly for girls.

“Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of”

19th Century Nursery Rhyme

As a society, we have created an environment where girls are surrounded by pink things, dolls and messages about looking pretty, but not always by sport or physical activity. Try google image searching and you’ll be assaulted by a sea of pink. There are some positive messages to girls from the toys you’ll find – but a lot of the images show “girly” cosmetic sets, dolls and princesses. I was brought up in the Disney era, so I’m all about a princess and I’m all about dressing up, but where are all the sporty toys and where is the message that girls can be active too? To me, the message is that I should a) like pink and b) like dolls. Because I’m a girl. Conversely, google image search “Christmas toys for boys” and it’s a much different story. Action toys, cars and Lego are the order of the day. What strikes me the most is that boys seem to get all the colours (except pink of course), whereas girls are already much more limited in their options. Something is wrong about this picture.

Think about the last time you sat and watched any Childrens’ TV. Mindnumbing, perhaps, but think about the content of the programmes, the characters and stories involved and even the adverts. I saw an advert recently for a pink camera to take ‘selfies’ with. The advert didn’t explicitly say it was just for girls, but it was only girls using it and they mainly posed for the whole 30 seconds. Straight before that advert was one for a camera to take pictures of ‘action’. The ad featured various children, almost all boys, none posing for the camera and all enjoying some form of physical activity. It was blue. What messages do these adverts send to the children watching them? At the very least, girls should enjoy posing and looking pretty, boys should be physically active. Since I saw this advert it’s been hard to stop spotting other subtle messages sent to girls and boys about what their gender says about them and how they should perform it to ‘get it right’. These messages can’t be right, and as much as they’re only small, the more we see them, the more they subtly become ingrained in what we think, and in the assumptions we make about ourselves and others.

In case you think that children don’t pick up on these messages, think again. I was playing Lego with a friend’s awesome, action-loving 2-year old not so long ago and, because I am a football fan with a limited imagination, and the Lego board was green, I was making a football pitch. As we reached to put the people onto the board to be the players, my friend’s little girl (who might incidentally be left or right handed) took the more female looking Lego character off the board and told me, because she knew, “girls don’t play football”. Her parents aren’t big football fans so she doesn’t see a lot of football. Her parents are also awesome, and don’t parent her any differently to her older brother based in any way on gender. Yet somehow the world has already taught her, before her 3rd birthday, that her gender has put a limit on what she can do. Don’t worry – mummy very quickly told her that “Auntie Nat plays football”. I was quickly given the person back to reinstate on our football pitch. It’s that easy to correct the message.

The scary thing is that with sport and physical activity there are consequences. If girls grow up thinking that sport is something that isn’t for them, they drop out by age 13, or maybe earlier or later. We hear from a lot of adult women that they wish they’d carried on exercising when they were younger, and from Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign that 75% of women would like to be more physically active but have a fear of some form of judgment[7]. Is it any wonder when being physically active isn’t something we see girls and women doing? We’re working on some research around pictures of sport in newspapers. We’re half way through a year-long project but the results are already fairly depressing[8]. Although around 20% of photographs in newspapers are of sport, 93% of those are of men. The ratio of male sports players to female is 15:1, and this in a year where England have hit the top 3 spots in world rankings in Football, Rugby, Cricket and Hockey, to name just a few. No wonder the average 7 year old we asked in our research was 22% less likely to answer “How sporty are you?” with “very sporty” than her male classmate. If you can’t see it, you can’t imagine being it.

Again, though, this isn’t hard to correct – we are all massively affected by the immediate world we live in. I coach an under 11s football team in a girls-only club. There are over 100 girls in the club so training nights make for one busy astroturf pitch. One night last week I was asked by one of my team, a 10 year old girl, whether I was having a boy or a girl. When I said I would find out next week, she said “I hope it’s a girl, then it can play football”. Putting aside my surprise I asked her whether boys could play too. She said that they could, but we didn’t have any in our club. She’s right. She’s going with what she sees and all her teammates, as well as her coach, are girls. It’s the message she’s received.

So this Christmas, amongst all the fun and games, let’s think about some of the messages we’re sending to girls, and boys, about who they are and who they can be. People keep asking me why, if I am so keen on people being treated equally, am I finding out whether the human I’m currently growing is a girl or a boy. Partly, it’s to start this conversation. Partly, and selfishly, it’s to flag up where the world might make assumptions about what they want to do and who they want to be, and do my best to let them genuinely be who they want to be. I’m also painfully aware that I need to question myself on these things. I’ve grown up in a world where girls and boys means you do and like different things too. I managed to catch and correct myself recently talking about going to the Doctor saying “I’ll see what he says”. So, I’ve not been immune to the gender stereotypes either and I need to question my own assumptions as much as anyone else’s.

I’d love to live in a world where the gender of a tiny human didn’t define anything for them, rather than a world where parents-to-be not only find out what gender their child is, but what assumptions the world is likely to make as a result. Until then I’ll do my best to spot them. I might also take the time to enjoy my last Christmas without a tiny human… I’ve a feeling next year might be a little different.

[1] Technically, we’ll be finding out the baby’s biological sex, which I know isn’t the same as gender. However, that’s a whole separate article – so for the purposes of this one, I’ll apply the general assumption (without accepting it’s accuracy) that sex and gender can be used interchangeably and assume that if the baby is biologically female it will be assumed to be a girl, and if biologically male it will be assumed to be a boy. It might well identify otherwise.

[2] Government Equality Office Research, reporting March 2015 []

[3] From our own, soon to be published, educational research report findings

[4] Anecdotal evidence we hear from Secondary PE Teachers in the work that we do

[5] Youth Sport Trust and Women In Sport Research, 2017 []

[6] Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender []

[7] Sport England “This Girl Can” Research []

[8] From our own research