Are parents subconsciously sexist?

It started with a kiss. Not really. This week, the Bubster’s pre-school gymnastics class began with a light-hearted warm-up that included running around in a circle. As the kids were jogging into each other, I noticed something rather interesting. Namely: that my son was the only boy in the class of 14 three and four-year-olds, making the session 93% female and 7% male.

At this point, I began thinking about lunch. Again, not really. I actually started considering the male/female ratios in the little man’s other sports classes. They are as follows:

  • Football: 10 boys, 2 girls (83% male; 17% female)
  • Golf: 3 boys, 1 girl (75% male, 25% female)
  • Tennis: 2 girls, 1 boy (66% female, 33% male)
  • Swimming: 5 girls, 4 boys (56% female, 44% male)

What does it all mean?

It’s tough to draw any conclusions about golf or tennis due to the small sample size and swimming is nicely mixed, but, disconcertingly, these statistics show that there is clearly a gender imbalance when it comes to the sports of gymnastics and football. And even more worryingly, at my son’s age, there are absolutely no physical reasons why this should be the case. Thus, I have to conclude that the vast majority of mums and dads in my area feel that gymnastics suits girls and football is for boys.

Subconscious sexism

But how can this be the case in this era of gender neutrality, Max Whitlock, The Lionesses and This Girl Can? Honestly? I think they are just horrible, horrible people. Just kidding. I actually believe it’s down to subconscious sexism.

As Dr Pragyar Agarwal explains on Forbes.com, the theory behind this kind of unconscious bias is that even though we all say we’re open-minded and not prejudiced, due to societal and parental conditioning we all hold a number of biases at the subconscious level.

Cars vs Dolls

Take me, for example. I am forward-thinking, culturally aware and respectful of all gender choices. I’m happy to send my son to gymnastic classes and play nail painting and make-up, but have I ever bought him a doll? No, I have not. Cars, a ‘Boys Rule’ T-shirt and dinosaurs? Yes, yes and yes. Dolls, glitter pens and Princess costumes? No, uh-uh and never.

Does this make me a bad parent, dad or man? No, it doesn’t. It simply means that, like the parents in my area who “never really thought about” booking their daughter in for football classes or “didn’t consider” that their son might enjoy gymnastics, I possess a level of subconscious sexism. Am I happy about this? No. Am I trying to overcome it? Yes. Do I have anything else funny or witty to say about this situation? No.

Given this, I’m going to end this blog post/confessional with a question. Now that I’ve made you think about it: are you a subconsciously sexist parent? Please let me know your answers in the comments section below.

Until next time…

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8 comments

  • It’s society’s fault, not yours, John – we’re all just doing our best. Plus – have you ever seen a girl in a premiership football or rugby team? Is it even allowed? And don’t even get me started on the complete absence of gay or disabled people. In my opinion adult professional sports teams should be mixed if we’re ever going to reach a mix in childhood activities.

    • Mixed professional teams is a really interesting idea. I know professional golf is trying to have more mixed male/female events, but I can’t see team sports ever agreeing to it/a governing body being able to implement it due to the money involved. Interestingly, my sister was telling me that the junior tennis competitions in their area can only be won by a team containing a girl (so any school that only fields boys will automatically lose all their matches). I’m not sure that is a good solution, but at least it shows that some effort is being made in their area. In terms of gay and disabled sportspeople, I completely agree. Women’s hockey seems to have a pretty good attitude to the former (I think at least a couple of the Team GB Gold medal winners were married to each other), but in male teams there seems to be little or no representation.

  • I’ve long believed that parents are the first line of defence when it comes to subverting everyday sexism. Sure, the marketers and media aren’t making our jobs any easier, but we’ve got to be the guardians of it.

    • Great point, and for my part I’m definitely trying to get better. I think the hard part is getting parents to realise that some of the actions we don’t think twice about are actually perpetuating everyday sexism.

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  • I think that sexist is the wrong word. Biased? Probably. My daughter tends to like the same stuff that I do, hiking, superheros, watching and playing sports, but also went to dance class for a while and wants to try gymnastics. The key, I think, is just to follow their lead whenever possible and see what they decide for themselves they like

    • Good points, Jeremy – and great that your kid has been to a variety of classes and had a wide range of hobbies. My concern is for the kids who are too young to take the lead when it comes to activities. At the baby and toddler age, it’s up to the parents to present the options to the kid. And, where I live at least, it seems like some of the options chosen by the parents are fuelled by their child’s gender. This may be down to bias, but it’s also sexist.

  • I’ve been thinking about this a lot since we had our daughter 11 years ago and all the clothes available for her were pink. Pink pink pink! Couldn’t escape the bloody colour! It was so limiting. The toys we bought her were as gender neutral as possible but it can’t be escaped because it is the way society is structured. Most of the social gender cues we are surrounded by tell us what boys and girls should/not we doing, playing, wearing, saying, thinking. I put Iyla in a blue jumper and our neighbours commented on how it was weird! The toys people get children and don’t even get me started on princesses. I’ve got two girls and I’ve tried to expose them to a range of activities typical for boys and girls and always encouraged them to follow their interests. I’ve tried to lead by example and tried to get stuck in to typical ‘boy’ jobs. This is the best I can do to counter balance the weight of gender stereotypes both overt and covert. All power to those who try the same. I don’t think kids should be limited to what society expects of them based on gender.

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