He "possesses strong leadership qualities", but she's "bossy and manipulative"...? 

We constantly hear that girls are more social and less physical, that they’re princesses, boy-crazy, sexual temptresses, or pure and virginal. At the same time we’re told that boys are physically more active, but socially and verbally less mature, that they’re emotionally stunted, slaves to their sex-drives or that ‘boys will be boys’.

When someone falls outside these stereotypes or exhibits traits traditionally associated with the opposite sex, often negative labels are used. For example, an assertive female might be labelled as a ‘bossy and manipulative’, while an assertive male is described as ‘possessing strong leadership qualities’. Stereotypes like these inevitably shape the way young people view their place in the world according to their gender.

Being a young man or woman means different things to different people, and trying to live up to society’s assumptions can lead people down unhealthy and disrespectful paths, from limiting their own aspirations, putting sexual pressure on themselves or others, to victim-blaming and going on to promote outdated myths and practices themselves. Read our Gender versus sex: Expectations, myths and models article to understand some of the more serious impacts of gender stereotypes.

It’s important for parents to be aware that what they teach their children about gender and what boys and girls can and should do, or the way they behave has a huge influence on how they see themselves and others in the world. And as the most trusted and reliable people in your children’s lives, you have an opportunity to set great examples and broaden their vision of possible futures for themselves.

There are plenty of situations where young people are likely to reinforce gender stereotypes amongst themselves, whether it’s at school, out and about or in the home. Sometimes young people make remarks ‘off the cuff’ because they’ve been exposed to them before but have never been prompted to think further about their meanings and consequences. As parents you can encourage kids to think critically about stereotypes and rigid gender roles.

Highlighting examples of positive role models can inspire kids to dispute gender stereotypes, too. If you know, or know of a female doctor, soldier or sports-person, talk about what challenges they might have faced to get where they are. Try comparing your own experiences as a young person and discussing stereotypes that were considered ‘truths’ back then.

Stereotype examples – Let’s talk about…

How do these commonly made statements make half our population feel about themselves, and how do they affect the other half’s respect for women?

  • “He’s such a girl” = Whether it’s about physical activities or general behaviour, ask kids if they can see how this not only suggests there are things boys shouldn’t do because of their gender, but also tells females nothing they do will ever be as ‘good’ as what boys do.
  • “She’s so hot/sexy” = This may seem like a compliment, but ask your kids why this is important. How is it relevant to what someone does or who they are? Are there other aspects to this person that are more worthwhile than the way they look? Point out that basing your idea of people on how ‘hot/sexy’ they are limits who you have respect for and your understanding of people generally.
  • “She’s a slut/frigid” = Ask kids why someone’s sex-life should be anyone else’s business. Why would we give anyone such an offensive label based on what someone else has said about something so private?
  • “Women/men are all…” = …all what? There’s not a lot that can truthfully follow this sentence. Ask kids if they can see how making these assumptions limits their understanding and limits other’s understanding of themselves. Although generalisations can seem like an easy way to understand the world, they’re generally ‘lazy’ in that they rely on stereotypes – not facts.

Use examples of sexism or rigid gender roles you see in the media, news stories, advertising, television or film as prompts for discussion. If you see questionable stories, debates or adverts, use some of the suggested questions above and ask your kids for their thoughts.

Look at our articles on gender for young people for useful reading to give your kids. For more on talking to kids read our other articles on talking to kids.