Does the language that parents use for unborn babies contribute to gender inequality?

Today, the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, goes unchallenged almost 100% of the time. This is especially true for babies, who can’t correct people who wrongly identify their gender. This inability to speak, combined with most babies generally resembling potatoes, often results in baby Bella being referred to as a ‘strapping young chap’ by the check-out lady in Tesco. Because of this, babies are often seen as needing to brandish their gender, publically, so as to avoid any confusion.

Exactly what impact this temporary gender confusion would have, isn’t exactly clear. But never the less, in order to prevent it, little ones often find themselves wearing their assigned gender on their heads, in the form of a pink bow, or on their bodies in the shape of blue dungarees with tractors embellished on the front. Everything is altered to signify their gender. Their shoes, their coats, their hair. Even their accessories, car seats, prams and bedroom furniture, are customised to reflect their supposed masculinity or femininity. And their toys of course, but that’s a whole different topic. It begs the question what would happen if we simply dressed them for practicality, style or taste, and left gender out of the equation.

But what about before all this, before they even see the world they are going to live in, before they meet their parents or take their first independent breath. Without even knowing it, are parents setting up their unborn baby with a set of rules and expectations to live by, purely because of their gender assigned at birth.

A study by Professor Emily Kane, referenced by Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, showed that this may well be the case. The study showed that men tended to have a preference towards having a son, whilst mothers favoured both genders for different reasons. The Fathers’ most frequently cited reason for wanting a son was to have someone to play sport with. Whilst mothers expressed wanting a son so that their husbands would have someone to play sports with… Girls were favoured by mothers because they offered a chance to have someone to ‘dress up’ and be a ‘doll’. There was no mention of fathers voluntarily wanting to have a daughter, over a son.

There was also an assumption that girls would offer a strong emotional connection, which carries the inherent assumption that the boys, then, will not. It is no surprise that so often we live up to these stereotypes, when our sole caregivers have already decided what to expect of us, before they even meet us.

Another study carried out by Professor Kane, looked at the language that pregnant mothers used regarding their unborn babies, both before and after they knew the sex. The mothers were asked to talk about their foetus’s movements in the womb. No pattern was identified in their language at the stage when the sex was unknown.

However, there was an obvious change in word choices once the sex had been revealed, with words such as ‘vigorous’, and ‘strong’ being used to describe the male babies. In contrast, female babies were referred to only in their differences to the supposed characteristics of the male babies. For example, as being ‘not violent’, ‘not excessively energetic’ or ‘not terribly active’.

Cordelia Fine also looked at another study in her book, regarding research done by McGill University, which examined birth announcements made by new parents, featured in two Canadian newspapers. The research looked at the language used to express ‘happiness’ and ‘pride’. Again, there was a pattern of language use which correlated with gender, with parents of a baby boy being more likely to express ‘pride’, and ‘happiness for a girl’. Psychologist John Jost also identified that parents were more likely announce the birth of a new child at all, if it was a boy.

‘Delusions of Gender’, also identifies other differences in the treatment of boy babies and girl babies, citing a study which illustrated that mothers spoke more frequently to female babies. Despite there being no differences noted in the abilities and behaviours of male and female babies, it seems there’s a likely explanation for a lot of the traits we consider to be biological, or inherent to each gender. For example, girls being chattier and boys being more independent. Perhaps if they were held to equal standards from birth, these traits would not collude so frequently with gender.

The idea that boys are more physically able than girls, an idea which leads to them being more likely to be encouraged to play sports (and succeed at them) could also have roots in infanthood. In one experiment, mothers of 11 month olds were asked to estimate the crawling abilities of their children, on an adjustable walkway. When deciding the level of steepness their son or daughter could manage and would attempt, mothers consistently overestimated boys and underestimated girls. Tests showed that there was no difference in ability in relation to the gender of these children, but somehow, before even learning to walk, girls were assumed to be weaker and less able, and even less ambitious.

It seems hard to deny that these studies into early childhood, and even unborn babies, have some link to the differences often identified in gender later down the line. For example, women report consistently lower levels of self-esteem, than males. And in business only 15% of local authority leaders in the UK are women. Females represent just 16% of executive roles in the largest British companies. And in sport, female achievements are consistently rewarded and recognised less than male achievements. In American female football, players out-performed their male counterparts in the world cup. Yet the average salary for a male player is £207,81, compared to just £30,000 for a female.

It seems that encouraging gender stereotypes generally allows for at least one loser in every situation, and in many cases two. Treating boys and girls the same, right from their days in the womb, seems the best remedy to these inequalities.

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