Friday, 28 September 2012

A girl in a boys' world?

When I was sixteen, I sat on a wooden stool in my chemistry class. The whole class sat around one huge laboratory bench and most of the faces that stared back at me were boys. It was the same in maths and physics. I was girl in a boys’ world.

Where were the girls? At this point, I didn’t consciously ask this question, but I was puzzled. The whole of society was skew. All around me and in my own family as well, men were breadwinners and women were housewives. A teacher said to me: “It’s going to harder for you to have a career because you are a girl.”

It was only years later that I began to pursue this further. Over three decades of gradual accumulation of messages that women were more suited to some roles and men others, and that the roles of men and women are valued differently, I decided to find out the truth.

I read feminist books, talked to experts and started writing a blog (http://delilah-mj.blogspot.co.uk). My neuroscience doctorate from years ago became useful as I delved into academic papers and searched for an answer to the question: are men and women naturally different in the way we think, the way we behave and what we aspire to? Or are we shaped by society’s expectations of us and the different activities that we do, skills that we learn and roles that we play?

Many studies have been carried out in this area, and as yet there is no clear answer. The results are hazy and there is no conclusive evidence to show that boys and girls are born with different cognitive talents. What is much more likely to be happening is that our brain changes in structure and function as we absorb the messages around us and we are influenced and moulded by the stereotypes of society around us.

At the end of 2011, I led the successful Hamleys campaign (http://breakthrough-stereotypes.org.uk/?page_id=265), which resulted in the famous toyshop ditching its gender signs. The story received media coverage all over the world and debates went on for weeks. The strong resistance and the controversy confirmed how strongly gender is embedded in people’s identities and is locking the status quo.

A few months later, I set up the Breakthrough gender stereotypes programme (http://breakthrough-stereotypes.org.uk) in schools, in partnership with Laura Kirsop, a year 5 teacher at Soho Parish School. This was a series of lessons on the theme gender stereotype awareness covering the spectrum of the National Curriculum. The results – transformation of the children’s perceptions of the world around them – were uplifting and powerful.

This is just the beginning. This is an important message that can change people’s lives and open up opportunities, and my mission is to take this out to share it with as many people as possible. Schools is one route, and I am designing programmes and principles and working on a model of dissemination. But there’s also the rest of the world. This is about much more than gender stereotype awareness. It’s about self awareness, which is the key to self-empowerment, fulfillment in life, and success.

Dr Laura Nelson (http://drlauranelson.com) is a writer, speaker and entrepreneur.

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