By Cecelia Herbert
As the festive season well and truly sets in, many of us reflect on the year that has been. A few of us are too busy trying to squeeze the last few drops out of the year as the final weeks flitter away and our to-do list gets even larger. As you may have guessed, I am the latter, so I will not be filling a page with sentiments of the 2013 greatest hits (of which there have been many… almost too many to mention). I will however share with you some everyday observations. Little things that in and of themselves do not matter, yet have a cumulative effect in shaping our understanding of the world.
A week ago I was thrilled to get a lovely card from my son’s school. It was addressed to Mrs Herbert and thanked me for my time that I had volunteered over the year. Confusion set in, as I had not volunteered at the school (my volunteer quota is full already!). Then it dawned on me that the letter was for my husband who does canteen duty. The error came from the assumption that school volunteers are mothers, not fathers. It is the mums who give up their time for free, to be compensated with gratitude and handmade cards.
A few days later, our son’s school report arrived. Again my husband had picked up an envelope (this time addressed to Ms Herbert) and put it on my desk. Another subtle message that it is the mothers in the school community that are the centrepiece of children’s education. A pang of shame hit me when I realised what kind of message that this sends to fathers who are actively involved in school communities – it’s not normal. Despite the acceptance that there was no ill-intent behind these errors, the lack of recognition of my husband as an equal (and sometimes better) parent to his kids, is subtle and exclusionary. Sure, this pales in comparison to the consequences of exclusion of women in professional contexts, but it is this socially pervasive and systemic message that ‘you are not welcome if you step outside of gender role’ that I feel is the hinge on which gender equality sits.
I wonder what impact these subtle messages have on my children as they wander through life unaccompanied by me. They are embedded in these systems, as social norms permeate through all areas of our lives. I had some insight into how they manage this when my five year old daughter met with Santa as we walked through a department store this week. She stopped for a chat and casually asked him if there were any female reindeer. He said no. She asked why. He told her that all the boy reindeers were stronger and liked to work hard. The girl reindeer prefer to stay inside where it is warm and let the boys do all the hard work. No, I did not cause a riot. She just changed the subject to what her brother wants for Christmas and gave him a high five. As we exited the store, she confided in me: “I don’t think that was the REAL Santa. He was wrong about girls not being as strong. And Prancer is totally a girl’s name.”
These little moments may seem insignificant, but they are cumulative and impactful. In the same way, so are we. The prescriptive strength of gender norms is enormous, influencing every aspect of our culture, to the point it just becomes normal and no one notices. Deliberately seeking bias out and making the effort to counteract it as we meander through our everyday lives seems to be the most systematic way to move towards a future where everyone is able to contribute equally, depending on what they can do, not what they should do. This does not mean seeking out the room full of sexists and locking the door. It means providing people with the narrative and the conviction to call out biased assumptions as they find them. Sure this is important for our children, but just as much for us adults.