I found myself at an International Women’s Day event last week, run by a Catholic institution. While there, I listened to several speakers address this year’s theme of “Breaking the Bias.”
Among the speakers were some teenage girls who spoke specifically about gender bias. “An example of gender bias,” they explained, “is giving girls dolls and boys trucks to play with.”
We’ve heard people say this before. Indeed, it’s the reason behind failed campaigns like “No Gender December,” which tried to persuade toy and department stores to stop separating girls’ and boys’ toys at Christmas time, because in doing so – the campaigners alleged – they were promoting gender stereotypes.
The problem with such campaigns is that they offer no explanation as to why studies consistently show that when presented with a free choice, boys will overwhelmingly reach for the “boys’ toys” and girls will overwhelmingly favour the “girls’ toys.” The difference is even more profound when they are given a choice specifically between a doll and a truck. So, the claim of “toy bias” was not novel.
“I would love it if one year, International Women’s Day spoke about mothers rather than the gender pay gap.”
However, the way the girls described why giving girls dolls to play with was a problem reflected well the difficulty I have with International Women’s Day.
“By playing with dolls, girls are taught that they should be nurturing and caring,” they lamented, “while boys are taught to protect and provide.”
The suggestion given to the female audience – many of whom were the same age as the speakers – was to identify the nurturing and caring impulse they might have as a form of gender bias.
They were encouraged to reject this and to ‘call out’ any gender bias they detect in others. I know the girls are only young. Most likely they did not appreciate the implications of what they were saying, but it was alarming.
A generation after I went to school, teenage girls are being told that their desire to nurture and care is not a natural and wonderful part of their femininity, but rather a social construct shaped by the gifts they receive as toddlers.
Rather than seeing the qualities of receptivity, sensitivity, generosity and maternity – what Pope St John Paul II described as the “feminine genius” – as part of their true identity and giftedness as women, girls are being told that these are gender stereotypes that must be resisted.
The view of womanhood idolised in a “break the bias” narrative and in the corporatised celebrations of International Women’s Day is an impoverished one. It suggests to young women that their good and natural maternal desires, whether they are manifested in biological motherhood or the countless other ways in which women care for others, is something of which to be wary.
“It is telling us that we may participate in society, as long as we are more like men. That’s the bias we should be breaking!”
This robs them of discovering one of the greatest gifts of womanhood. As one friend commented: “I would love it if one year, International Women’s Day spoke about mothers rather than the gender pay gap.”
The most extreme (and egregious) example of this is when it comes to those who tell women that the ultimate expression of gender equality is abortion. In his International Women’s Day statement for this year, US President Joe Biden said:
“Improving the status of women and girls strengthens economies, democracies, and societies across the board.
“That’s why I … launched a whole-of-government effort to protect reproductive rights.”
Unlike the schoolgirls talking about gender bias, neither President Biden nor his speechwriters can claim that they don’t appreciate the implications of saying that ready access to abortion improves the status of women and girls and strengthens the economy and society.
They either know better or should know better, because ready access to abortion (and contraception, for that matter), has meant women are less supported during pregnancy by a society that absolves itself of responsibility to mother and child because having a child is a “choice”.
I think it’s great that we have a day like International Women’s Day to celebrate the contribution of women to society and to highlight the need for equal opportunity in those areas where it does not already exist.
But trying to do so in a way that at best ignores, or at worst encourages women to scorn the very heart of femininity – maternity – is not celebrating women at all.
It is telling us that we may participate in society, as long as we are more like men. That’s the bias we should be breaking!