Swedish pre-school fights gender bias

Pretty interesting stuff.

The whole place is set up to put all kinds of stereotypically gendered behavior on equal footing, e.g. putting the Legos next to the kitchen set.  They’ve got comments from ye olde concern trolls- a UC Berkeley psychologist is quoted as saying, “The kind of things that boys like to do — run around and turn sticks into swords — will soon be disapproved of.  So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness,” which ignores possibilities like the girls might want to run around with stick-swords too- but they seem to be handling what’s a fairly radical idea (relative to what’s already in existence) as well as they can.

I’m not sure about the whole removal of gender pronouns. They don’t appear to be putting transgender or genderqueer concepts into the program (that’d probably be a bit complicated for three-year-olds), so it seems like something that might backfire or at least limit the efficacy of the overall lessons they’re trying to teach.  The idea is to promote equality; maybe there’s some study somewhere to refute this, but I would think teaching “boys and girls are inherently equal” would be more likely to hold going forward than “there are no boys or girls, just people.”  Everything they see outside the school will militate in favor of there being separate genders, and ignoring that doesn’t seem helpful.  (Example #1:  The headline to the article being about the lack of gender pronouns when that’s far from the only new teaching concept they’re putting into place.)

But everything else they’re doing seems pretty well thought-through.  I hope it works out for them.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    There is still “boy” stuff at the school (like construction), so the idea about running with swords ought to not be a problem unless there’s a safety concern.

    The gender pronoun issue isn’t just about TGs. It’s that they “separate” people and make them gender-conscious, because pronouns generally draw unnecessary attention to gender (it is sometimes acceptable with nouns, as you still want to be able to acknowledge gender or race or whatever else *when it is relevant to the discussion*). It gives the listener the impression that someone’s gender is a more important piece of information than, say, someone’s race, height, religion, personal interests, etc.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      There’s a woman in the article quoted as saying there’s nothing wrong with gender roles. That’s the kind of thing they’re trying to overcome, and I hope they do. But I don’t see how you do that by disregarding gender pronouns when they’re ubiquitous in general life and not going away anytime soon.

      I look at it like this: If you’re relating a story about someone, and you say he was “a tall black guy”, the reason “black” colors someone’s perception of the person is because of whatever attitude they have towards black people, not because the man is black. Likewise, the separation between men and women occurs because of what we expect from men and women, not because one person is a man and another is a woman.

      In an ideal world this might be the better way, but the ideal world is one where no one gives a shit about gender anyway. In this world, where those characteristics are given overwhelming importance, disregarding that people look different and are built differently doesn’t seem nearly as useful a lesson as acknowledging those differences and pounding home how superficial and irrelevant they are.

      Just for the record, though, I’d be happy to be wrong about this.

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        The thing is that Black/White/etc have gender counterparts in male/female/etc (nouns). What the racial counterparts to him/her/him/he/she (pronouns)?

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        The thing is that Black/White/etc have gender counterparts in male/female/etc (nouns). What are the racial counterparts to him/her/him/he/she (pronouns)?

        • Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:53 am | Permalink

          Language is just a signifier. “He” and “she” just refer to a specific boy or girl; on that same note, most of my co-workers (at least the Asian-American ones, who are the vast majority) frequently refer to people by race. “That black guy” or “this Asian girl” are common phrases. I hear it less back home, but that place is more homogenous by a few orders of magnitude, and I’ll still hear shit like “the black guy got elected”.

          The fact there’s no pronoun to describe race doesn’t really mean much- for all we know, if there were only two conceivable races, maybe our language would have developed to shorthand race the way we shorthand gender. Living in California, with all the substantial diversity involved, it’s clear people still see race; it’s just that out here, they don’t care. It’s a real thing with minimal meaning. Likewise, it seems odd to think that treating gender as non-existent will do more good than treating it as real but meaningless in a world where it is a very real thing.

          I should mention that I’m obviously viewing this as an English speaker, but the Swedish language may work better for what they’re trying to accomplish. As the article says, they have “han” and “hon” for male and female, and use “hen” for gender unknown; that feels like a very natural compromise word, since it’s close to the others but almost certainly sounds different. The English versions- ze, hir, etc.- don’t work nearly as well from a daily-use standpoint, since read aloud they sound like words already in use (or, in the case of “ze”, like someone saying “the” with a shoddy French accent).

  2. Posted June 29, 2011 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    I think this is incredible! I think it’s amazing that people are being employed to identify and challenge stereotyping language and behaviours. I think it’s interesting that the kids and others aren’t being referred to with pronouns. I wonder how that will influence them as they grow older, and even while they are still so young, having been in a space where they weren’t verbally gendered. And while I don’t think it’s going to completely combat everything they are fed outside that, maybe it will allow them to grow up more easily understanding that you can’t tell someones gender just by looking at them.

    And besides, since they will be getting all that enculturation of gender stereotypes outside preschool hours, I don’t think it’s going to confuse the kids too much. And I don’t think what the school is doing is pretending that gender isn’t there or doesn’t matter, it’s more challenging how we assume gender and stereotypes, and encouraging the kids to do this.

    I also LOVE how the book selection is more diverse and actively moves away from more ‘classic’ stories. I want schools like this in Australia!

    • Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      “And besides, since they will be getting all that enculturation of gender stereotypes outside preschool hours, I don’t think it’s going to confuse the kids too much. And I don’t think what the school is doing is pretending that gender isn’t there or doesn’t matter, it’s more challenging how we assume gender and stereotypes, and encouraging the kids to do this.”

      I thought about this, the fact the kids still live in the real world, and I’m honestly quite curious how they’ll react. Will any of them notice the difference between how they refer to each other in school and how everyone else refers to each other outside those walls? I’m still trying to figure out how you slot “friend” in when “he” or “she” would normally be used; maybe it works in Swedish.

      Maybe I shouldn’t have said in my comments above that they’re treating gender as non-existent. I obviously can’t know their actual mindsets on that unless they explain it, which isn’t part of the article. It does seem, though, that they’re very much trying to treat gender as if it doesn’t matter- and they should! In fact, and maybe there’s a reason not to do this that I’m not considering, but I think if you bring people of different professions in to that school you should bring a man and a woman for each one. Then the message is literally, you all can do every one of these things.

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