Expelling gender myths in children

South Africa has a shortage of children leaving high school and choosing to pursue engineering at a tertiary level.  There are a number of reasons for this, but one that is not often addressed publicly is the gender stereotype that boys are more suited to engineering.

This may sound archaic in its very argument, primarily because in public, we dare not say things like that.  We’ve evolved.  We’ve even got our very own Women’s Day, a whole 6 months after the rest of the world commemorates it. However, the statistics still show that gender plays a role as there are fewer girls studying engineering than boys.

So the question is how are parents and teachers, silently (and subliminally) reinforcing this stereotype, especially given the cultural gender baggage that South Africans still carry?

The answer to this is somewhat basic.  Most of people grew up in homes where the split of household chores depended on your gender.  Girls did the cooking and cleaning, while the boys did the hard laborious work (like taking out the garbage).  There is also a lot of encouragement around the seemingly harmless talk around who cooks better, men or women.  Many can attest to having elaborate family challenges around this particular topic, with motivated teams of men and women going to great lengths to prove who the better cook is.  What is forgotten is that at the root of this argument is the notion that women should be better cooks, because a woman’s place is in the kitchen.

Not every family does this though, and there are those who are fortunate enough to have support from early on, for whatever career they want.  However, at times, teachers are known to undo the work that parents start at home, by undermining a child’s desire to do or be more. Meet Janet* (not her real name) – a very bold and outspoken 7 year old.  She got it into her head that she wanted to be an astronaut and was quick to tell her teacher this when they spoke about careers one day.

Her female teacher, who had probably been told the same thing herself at that age, laughed off Janet’s aspirations and told her she could never be anything more than a nurse or a teacher. Little Janet sobbed as she told her father what the teacher said that evening.  Thankfully for Janet, her father stood up for her and the next day, told her teacher that Janet could be whatever Janet wanted to be (in a lot more expressive language).

But how many little Janet’s are there today, in 2015, who believe what their teachers say, and don’t aspire to be more because this icon of knowledge (that a teacher is) is not encouraging them to be more, based on location, circumstance and gender? Hopefully very few, but child psychologist Ashley Jay, says this happens more than we may want to believe.

“Children often witness their mothers coming home after work and doing what is often called the ‘second shift’ of cooking, home administration, and helping with homework at night time,” comments Jay.  This may also serve to reinforce gender stereotypes when the mother’s daily work is not taken into account, regardless of her profession.  In reality, however this would mean that the maternal figure’s job is never really done.

Ashley adds that the more modern view of gender roles would suggest that both parental figures are responsible for daily tasks (at home or in the workplace). “Both parents may have had a long day at the office or at home, but if both are home at night and contribute to helping the kids with their homework, making dinner, getting the kids to sleep, this would serve to undermine any ‘preference’ for certain genders having prerequisite job roles in the family,” she said.

“As for little Janet*, her teacher is merely reinforcing a generational gender stereotype that she was probably conditioned with throughout her childhood, which is, women are suited to these kinds of jobs,” said Jay.  “It is often difficult for one to see outside a particular way of thinking, when their frame of reference has been moulded and conditioned for them for a long time, in their family unit and within the overriding societal structure they are brought up in,” she explains.

“Janet’s teacher perhaps also had similar aspirations as a child, but the difference is that her parents probably bought into the gender role employment stereotypes and reinforced these ideas within her; whereas Janet’s father offered a different view point. Janet may have still come to the conclusion and eventual decision of being an astronaut as an adult, but it is always easier to be true to one’s desires when one has the support and encouragement of the people closest to them,” she concluded.  This confirms that parents’ involvement in career decisions is important and vital.

“As the Engineering Council of South Africa, we see all children as having the same potential to pursue careers in engineering,’ says Sipho Madonsela, Acting CEO.  ‘We have developed a programme called Engenius which we use as the channel to communicate with children at school-going age, regardless of their gender, to inspire them to pursue careers in Engineering.”

Through Engenius, the council interacts with children of both genders in both urban and rural areas, teaching them about the nine disciplines of Engineering.  The programme brings both male and female engineers into schools, to speak with the children and tell them about the work they do.  They bring Engineering kits with them, and direct the children as they figure out the different challenges of that discipline.  They act as ambassadors of sorts to inspire problem-solving in children.

“Everything is engineered – and that’s our message when we meet with children through Engenius,” says Madonsela.  “As Engenius, we need to show the children that through a career in Engineering, they can impact millions of lives by solving everyday problems with solutions that last a life-time,” he added.  Madonsela believes that parents have an import role to play in showing children how everyday things are engineered, and giving their children permission to see themselves as enablers of these solutions.

Knowing that the influence you have over your children’s careers extends beyond helping them with homework; this should inspire more parents to be creative in their encouragement of their children’s aspirations.  And where there aren’t any aspirations yet – South Africa certainly needs more engineers!

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