Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton knows better than most the agner and upset which can be caused by gender stereotyping.
The racing driver has apologised after posting a video on social media in which he playfully mocks his young nephew, who is happily wearing a purple and pink dress and waving a pink heart-shaped wand, telling him “boys don’t wear princess dresses”. The boy looked unperturbed and giggled at what his uncle said. The comments, however, have provoked a significant backlash, including a call from an anti-bullying charity for Hamilton to be stripped of his MBE.
The debate which Hamilton’s comments have prompted about what is and is not acceptable to say to children about “boys behaviour” and “girls behaviour” has to be welcomed. There is no doubt that stereotypes which are left unchallenged play a significant role in shaping children’s thinking.
Some studies suggest their influence is so powerful that by the age of 10 youngsters tend to have accepted certain firm ideas about their gender role. Boys, for example, know that they are expected to go outside and have adventures, while girls tend to believe they are more vulnerable and should not take the initiative in any relationship. These traits are depressingly familiar in societies around the world.
There is nothing wrong with protecting young girls or encouraging boys to be brave. We should be worried though when these stereotypes become straightjackets which restrict what children believe they can and can’t achieve.
In the midst of this debate, the Scottish Government’s clear signal on “gender neutral” school uniforms is a helpful step. It might seem a trivial matter in the context of shaping young minds and expanding children’s horizons. School dress codes, however, impact on children’s behaviour in many unforeseen ways.
The minute that girls are told they have to wear skirts it restricts their behaviour, from the minute they walk through the gates at primary school. Cartwheels on the playing field, for instance, are out. As a result, girls are likely to be less active than boys. That is not an argument for banning skirts, but for offering both the same options. There are many schools in Scotland which already do so, but encouraging others to adopt a policy which makes girls as comfortable in what they wear as boys has to be positive.