Gender discrimination works both ways

Image from NY Times 23 Dec 2013

Recently there was a disturbing expose in one of the UK’s major newspapers. Reporters had trawled through the data of the 2011 consensus and concluded that a worrying number of female children were missing from certain population groups.

An even more upsetting picture was painted during a phone-in at the BBC’s Asian Network. Alongside stories of unhappiness at the birth of female children, one woman gave her own account of being forced by her in-laws to have two abortions of female fetuses.

I am one of four girls. I grew up in a country where giving birth to four daughters in succession was a fate closely rivaled by having leprosy. People thought nothing of sadly shaking their heads and telling my parents that maybe the next one would be a boy.

At university I joined my fellow like-minded peers and went on candle-lit marches demanding better lighting on dark streets for the safety of women, debating the evils of gender discrimination and the shocking state of the UK’s own extremely low rape conviction rate.

If girl-children were going to go anywhere into the world, they might as well come to me, who would love and appreciate them, I reasoned.

Then I had two sons.

There is absolutely no doubt that gender discrimination is a huge problem, but since becoming the mother of two boys I have had the privilege of seeing the other side of the coin.

There are sites on the internet that can be accessed easily where women exchange tips on how to conceive a child of a certain sex. The users of these sites are almost exclusively from the Western world and here, women openly describe their disappointment at conceiving children of a certain gender.

Spend a few minutes on any of these sites and it soon becomes apparent that the gender of choice, at least in most of the Western world, is female. I would say that around 85% of the posts on such sites are from disappointed mothers of boys.

Having been so sure, determined almost, about having female children myself, I’ll be the first to admit that I would openly say as much to anyone who asked. Friends and well-wishers would often say “Have a girl next and you’ll see how wonderful it is” at the news of my first son’s birth. On hearing the second child was male too, I received earnest pats on the shoulder and comforting advice that never mind, the third one would surely be a girl.

And I, to my shame, loudly voiced my own hope that I would one day have a daughter too, until I realized that I was doing to my own children what I had experienced myself as a child, that stinging stab of anger whenever my parents were consoled about their disastrously female family.

We live in a world where we are closely examining the pressure little girls face at the pinkification of their childhoods and the media they are exposed to. But what about our sons? Buy a chemistry set for your daughter and you’re a right-on gender equality advocate. If your toddler son, however, wants to play with your makeup set, you’re suddenly a weirdo encouraging weak behavior and confusing your son about his place in life.

We tell our boys not to cry, not to show weakness, that no, they can’t play with that Barbie or the baby doll. Our world swings between giving male children an over-inflated opinion of themselves (the East) to making them feel like they can do no right (the West). This creates the kind of power-tripping, emotionally dysfunctional men that cause wars and banking crises and we sit around wondering how it all happened.

I used to think how easy it must be for men, they didn’t face any of the problems that women did. But becoming a mother to boys has made me look at things from a different perspective. I’m no fool. At home I may encourage their free expression but I know that outside their own front door they will face a battle. And it starts so young. It’s so ingrained in our societies that people we know think nothing of telling our sons to man up, not to cry.

Last year I took my son shoe shopping because he’s the kind of kid that refuses to wear shoes if he hasn’t picked them himself. He turned down everything. Then some sparkly golden girl’s shoes caught his eyes and his face lit up. Those were the shoes he wanted and I had to tell him no. He wasn’t even two years old yet and already the boundaries were firmly in place. If a little girl ditches her twinkly toed shoes for sneakers though? A-okay.

Small children do not understand the concept of gender. Can’t we just let them be children?


  1. Mother of two sons here too – one of whom proudly wears his purple leggings on an almost daily basis. We just embrace it – he’s nearly 4 and despite other people trying to tell him he shouldn’t be in leggings, we’re trying to help him understand that he can wear what he likes and they’re just an item of clothing (which incidentally are really practical in cold weather!).

  2. You nailed it! I feel the same way when I carefully choose not to use a pink cup or a pink plate for my son’s snack time. I am all for acting appropriately boy-ish per se, but do these things like color preferences, toys etc. really matter?

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