The problem, a new French report concludes, is that laws cannot legislate away deeply ingrained attitudes about the roles of men and women. In other words, gender stereotypes acquired by girls and boys in early childhood – stereotypes that affect their choices in school and as they enter careers – are blocking progress toward equality.
The report, commissioned by France’s minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, sets out 30 proposals for combating gender stereotypes as a means of improving prospects for equality.
The proposals call on policy makers to take steps to change the way children are socialized – at home, in day care, in preschool and primary school – in order to expand their vision of what is possible in later life. Particular attention is paid to girls and boys from underprivileged backgrounds who face limited social mobility as a result of gender stereotypes.
Questions raised include: How to promote a shift in mentalities about gender among boys and girls? Can this be achieved if more men take jobs typically viewed as women’s work, and vice versa? How to build a comprehensive action plan for narrowing the gender gap?
The report focuses on six areas where gender stereotypes are most problematic: the socialization of very young children, career orientation, unequal treatment at school, gender inequality in sports and cultural activities, gender-identified health risks, and cultural products such as toys and video games.
This summary presents the main themes of the report, which was coordinated by Marie-Cécile Naves and Vanessa Wisnia-Weill for the Commission for Policy Planning, a research organization under the auspices of the French prime minister’s office. The full report in French may be found online at: https://www.strategie.gouv.fr/
There is a connection between the inequalities faced by women in their careers and the fact that children are mainly cared for by women, both inside and outside the home.
Very young children interiorize gender stereotypes by observing the world around them, categorizing what they see as female or male and adapting their own behavior to these images. They quickly learn to associate “caregiver” with “female.”
This is hardly surprising. In France today, 99% of day-care center employees are women; only 3% of early childhood educators and 7% of kindergarten teachers are men. At home, women still perform most parenting tasks. Men still see themselves primarily as the breadwinner. They take little part in childbirth and parenting education, and have been less likely than women to try to adapt their work schedules to family life.
The challenge for policy makers is to find ways to promote a new “two breadwinners, two caregivers” model that would open the full range of human activities to men and women alike. And this implies more involvement by men in child care.
The countries most successful in this regard – Denmark, Norway and, more recently, Germany – have managed to boost the number of men working in early childhood education (to 10% in the best cases) by making gender equality part of broader child development programs and by targeting men, and particularly young men, who are between jobs.
- Proposal 1
Offer courses on childbirth and parenting that are more inclusive of fathers by adapting the content and schedules of these programs to encourage more men to attend.
- Proposal 2
Make it easier for fathers to balance work and family life through flexible labor policies like job sharing or working from home that give employees greater control over their schedules. The government should test these policies with its own employees. Businesses, public offices and the service sector should be encouraged to adopt a “flexibility charter”.
- Proposal 3
Draft a handbook for child care professionals with suggestions for getting fathers more involved when their children are in day care, for example by participating when parents are needed for special activities or being present during discussions about the child.
- Proposal 4
Initiate a national action plan for narrowing the gender gap in the child care professions. The plan should: set a five-year goal for increasing the number of men being trained as child care professionals; encourage job counselors to propose child care careers to men; reach out through publicity to men who are between jobs; create appropriate training programs.
If women predominate in the care sector, in France and elsewhere, men get most of the jobs associated with strength and technical prowess, in industry, construction and transportation.
In France today, only 17% of occupations offer relative gender equality (40% to 60% of jobs held by people of both sexes). This contributes to reinforcing gender stereotypes among young people, and affects their choices as they reach the career orientation stage in school.
There has been significant progress toward greater gender equality in the more highly skilled professions – with the notable exception of information technology – but the gender gap has not narrowed among people with less schooling, with continuing sharp distinctions between male and female types of work.
In France, girls and boys are channeled to enter either high school or vocational school after 9th grade, at the age of 14 or 15. As a result, more than 20% of French young people end up in vocational training programs that are largely all-girl or all-boy. This mainly affects children from working class backgrounds. The gender segregation limits the career prospects of these young people, particularly the girls. In fact, research in key sectors has shown that employers have the hardest times filling jobs in the fields most segregated by gender.
Given this situation, a strategic effort for narrowing the gender gap needs to focus on key vocations – those with a low level of gender equality but good overall hiring prospects and good youth employment possibilities. This report proposes a method for identifying such key sectors and using them to make the job market more gender-balanced via improved career orientation.
- Proposal 5
Using other countries as a model, get families involved in educating girls about primarily male professions, and vice versa. Develop publicity campaigns that make it appear more routine for men to hold jobs viewed as female and for women to hold jobs viewed as male.
- Proposal 6
Modify the orientation process in 9th and 10th grades (ages 14-16) to help students consider career paths that are atypical with regard to their gender. In particular, for students likely to go straight from 9th grade to vocational school, promote dialogue among families, guidance counselors and professionals in order to raise awareness about the key fields where steps are being taken to close the gender gap, and the consequences in terms of employment.
- Proposal 7
Include gender equality data in national and regional monitoring of youth training programs.
- Proposal 8
Draw up a government list of strategic sectors for narrowing the gender gap. Focus on vocations that lack gender equality but have good overall hiring potential and strong youth employment possibilities. Inform job counselors and unemployment offices about new hiring possibilities in the key sectors. Use the list in negotiating with regional and local partners to develop a comprehensive plan to work toward greater gender equality in the key sectors. This would involve using various levers, as described in Proposals 9-12.
- Proposal 9
Use previous campaigns about “girls and the sciences” as the basis for new campaigns about “girls and technology” (including information technology).
- Proposal 10
Get school authorities involved in government programs for promoting gender equality. Inform teachers, principals and guidance counselors about employment prospects in strategic sectors so that they can provide boys and girls with more diversified career orientation. Launch a publicity campaign for middle-school students and their families to help them take advantage of mixed-gender career discovery programs in their region.
- Proposal 11
Negotiate with professional and employers’ organizations to set targets for greater gender equality in apprenticeships and youth training programs.
- Proposal 12
Develop apprenticeships and work-study contracts in predominately female professions, where such programs are rarely on offer.
The fact that girls generally do better than boys at school, and that public schools in France are coeducational by law, could make it appear that girls are not at a disadvantage in school – or even that they have greater advantages than boys.
But boys and girls are treated differently at school. Teachers tend to give less support and encouragement to girls, especially in subjects viewed as competitive. Girls have less self-confidence than boys, especially toward the end of middle school (9th grade). They often “choose” less competitive paths of study, and this affects their future careers and salaries.
Everybody involved – teachers, school administrators, textbook publishers, families – must be made aware of this in order to contribute, on a daily basis, to increasing equality between girls and boys. For this, they need training and tools like those that exist in other countries.
- Proposal 13
Draw up contracts with the publishers of school books to ensure that the books portray an equal balance of males and females and an even distribution of social roles.
- Proposal 14
Establish teaching methods that benefit all students by compensating boys and girls for their respective weaknesses, for example by using computers in language classes. Get fathers more involved in reading activities, as is done in other countries. These measures primarily concern schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
- Proposal 15
Students should be graded not just on classwork but also on skills valued in the workplace: community involvement, public presentations, teamwork, taking responsibility.
- Proposal 16
Work groups and pairs formed in class should be mixed, with equal numbers of boys and girls if possible.
- Proposal 17
School principals, guidance counselors and rectors should be trained to develop greater gender equality in the various paths of study – literature, social studies, science – and to show more neutrality in their expectations of students. This should include refresher training for education professionals at all levels, from primary school to high school, with an initial course on gender equality mandatory at teacher training colleges.
- Proposal 18
Create resource centers that can provide tools for improving girl-boy equality at school – advice for teachers, books, and so on. Set up a Frequently Asked Questions site on the Internet. Appoint a representative for gender equality in every school. Include the subject in discussions at teachers’ meetings.
- Proposal 19
Study improvements in school architecture that have been made in other countries in order to combat unequal use of school recreation areas by boys and girls. Raise awareness about good practices in the mixed-gender use of sports and leisure facilities at schools.
- Proposal 20
Penalize sexist verbal and physical violence at school, whether directed at students or teachers, inside the classroom or out. Identify such behavior as sexist. School rules should include mention of the notions of equality and mutual respect between girls and boys.
Sports and cultural activities
Cultural activities and sports have evolved considerably in France since the 1980s, with greater access to recreation for greater numbers of people. But the activities practiced by children and teens differ along class lines (sports versus the arts, for example). Competitive sports remain primarily male, while “serious” pastimes like reading are still mainly female.
Girls get into teen activities earlier than boys do, although all young people today play with computers. It is easier for girls than for boys to choose activities usually identified with the opposite sex (since boys have to get over their fear of being stigmatized as homosexual).
Yet French sports clubs and cultural institutions persist in viewing girls and boys as having different “natural” preferences and abilities. Parents, teachers, and cultural and sports organizations need to be made more aware of the issue gender equality. As cultural activities and sports become more widespread, girl-boy inequalities need to be addressed.
- Proposal 21
Parents, teachers, doctors, schools and clubs need to be made more aware of the issue of gender inequality and the benefits of sports for all. This means combating the view of sports is “a boys’ thing” and the split between “male” and “female” sports. Awareness campaigns in clubs, schools and communities should stress the social and health benefits of sports.
- Proposal 22
Awareness campaigns targeting the general public should introduce the idea of gender neutrality in sports. The message can be tailored differently for girls and boys. Television ads, brochures and posters should portray equal numbers of boys and girls, women and men, practicing all types of sports. The campaigns can be evaluated through impact studies.
- Proposal 23
Research on childhood and adolescence should include the issue of gender. Most data currently focuses on age group, activity or social class. More could be learned from: longitudinal research, in which the same children are followed over time; pluridisciplinary research across the social sciences; and transversal research looking at gender in sports and culture in parallel with gender at school, family relations and health.
- Proposal 24
Change the practices of sports clubs by: checking their progress toward gender equality before awarding public funding; making gender equality mandatory in the regulations of all sports clubs, for children of all ages; teaching sports instructors about gender stereotypes and girl-boy inequalities during their initial training; offering activity guidelines that stress the social role and health benefits of sports, and not just competition.
- Proposal 25
Promote mixed-gender use of municipal sports facilities. Publicize health issues like the benefits of sports in fighting the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
The health of French young people is globally satisfactory. But indicators concerning risky behavior give cause for concern, more or less sharply according to gender.
The fact that girls and boys are socialized differently exposes them to different health risks. Images of femininity (fragility and sensitivity) and masculinity (strength and fortitude) that have been assimilated since childhood influence risk-taking and the way symptoms are expressed. And this affects the health of young people.
Violent and risky behavior is more common among boys and mental health issues more common among girls, although girls are gradually behaving more like boys (which could reflect the fact that society places a higher value on masculine behavior). In addition, the way adolescents view their bodies is strongly conditioned by the media and their peers.
Ideals like female slenderness and male muscularity can result in health problems. And adolescent health issues that generally affect the opposite sex may go undetected (for example drug addiction among girls or anorexia in boys), either because the young people don’t seek help or because health professionals treat them differently.
Although gender as a factor in health inequalities is acknowledged in medical practice and research in the English-speaking world, there is little awareness of it in France.
- Proposal 26
Test the use of warning messages in advertising campaigns or alongside photos published in the press to indicate that images of bodies have been retouched.
- Proposal 27
Evaluate the efficiency of prevention campaigns of various types to determine which communication strategy works best with young people.
- Proposal 28
Test the use of preventive health checks for childen in 6th and 9th grades (aged 11-12 and 14-15). The checks should be performed by doctors with special training.
- Proposal 29
Raise the awareness of health professionals: include a course on the links between gender and health in their initial training; bring the issue of gender into recommendations issued by top health authorities; ask scholarly organizations to mention the subject in their publications.
- Proposal 30
Create documents to explain to parents that, although they may not realize it, the way they bring up their children can create risks to health.
Toys and games
Recent research indicates that there has been an increase in gender stereotyping in products for children over the last two decades. The phenomenon affects not just the full range of goods for children – toys, picture books, video games, magazines, cartoons, television programs, etc. – but advertising as well.
Since the 1990s, toys and other children’s products for children have increasingly been aimed either at girls or at boys, rather than both. Boys and men are portrayed far more often than girls and women, with the stereotyping often more severe than in society itself. This tends to limit children’s vision of the possible at a very tender age.
There has, however, been some movement in the opposite direction, with manufacturers in France and elsewhere presenting not just “minimoms” playing with dolls in their toy catalogs, but also “minidads” holding and rocking the “baby”. This appears to be the result of complaints from clients about the sexual stereotyping in toys.