I could have easily scrolled right past it. And yet, something tugged at me to scroll back and take a second look. There it was: Blatant sexism, but so insidious, and yet so matter-of-fact that it was almost invisible. It was a flyer for a kids’ chess tournament. The first page contained the basics, like location, dates and entry fee. The second page contained prize information, segregated into prizes for boy winners and girl winners. Oh, and the girls’ prize money was about 60 per cent of the boys’.
Our kids’ lives are routinely segregated into boys’ and girls’ categories. Visit a unisex shoe store looking for gumboots, and you’ll be asked whether you’re buying rubber goloshes for a boy or girl. Never mind that the product is exactly the same; the clerk has been trained to send you to the pink ones for girls, and the blue (or superhero) ones for boys. Ask for help finding a gift at a toy store, and the first question you’ll get is whether it’s for a boy or girl. The clerk assumes that you’d never want a kitchen set for a boy, or a cricket bat for a girl. The sad part is, they might be right.
But here’s why we should fight these gender stereotypes at every turn: In the aggregate, separate can never truly be equal. One day we’re okay with boy and girl sections at the toy store, and then, we barely blink at girls and boys competing separately or being compensated differently for the same achievement. Accepting the gender divide in one seemingly innocuous arena only desensitises us to it in a more dangerous context.
Perpetuating a gender divide has very real implications for the children we raise. The recent Global Early Adolescent Study, across socio-economic levels and 15 countries, found that children internalise gender divisions by age 10. Which means there’s a clear window during which we can teach girls to expect equality — of performance, competition, achievement, and yes, remuneration.
If we don’t, we subtly communicate to children that girls’ contributions are less valuable. This devaluation of female achievement starts with something as seemingly harmless as the prize money at a kids’ tournament, but it ends with a 40-year-old woman asking herself why she still makes 25 per cent less than her male counterparts (as professional women in male-dominated industries in India currently do).
And to any naysayer wondering whether there are some ways in which boys and girls simply perform differently, I’d say: It’s entirely possible, but we can’t know in a world where girls are routinely given only a fraction of the incentives. It will take a few generations of giving girls equal opportunities and rewards before we truly know what they’re capable of. If we continue to frame their efforts and achievements as less-than, let’s not be surprised when an entire generation of adult women finds itself wondering whether competing in male-dominated arenas — for less-than rewards — is worth it.
Incidentally, I did call the organisers of the chess tournament to inquire about the gender gap in prize offerings. Their explanation: They don’t prevent girls from competing with the boys if the girls want to, but there is a separate category because they don’t want the girls to get discouraged by perpetually losing. And the prize money is different because there are fewer female competitors. There you have it. If you don’t recognise some of the tired excuses for the adult wage gap in this tidy explanation, it’s time to get your eyes checked.
I hope that my phone call embarrasses the organisers into changing the rules. Through small gestures like these, we can start to reframe the conversation around our children’s potential, and raise kids who compete on level playing fields — and are duly compensated for their achievements — regardless of gender.
One day, hopefully soon, parents will buy cleaning sets for their sons just as easily as construction kits for their daughters, and they’ll boycott events that pay girl winners less than boy winners. In the meantime, you’ll find me in the boys’ shoe section, buying the superhero gumboots for my daughters.