What happens when you remove gender from the classroom?

TV review – No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? has some answers

Dr Javid Abdelmoneim with his classroom of kids who are going gender free for six weeks. Photograph: Outline Productions

Dr Javid Abdelmoneim with his classroom of kids who are going gender free for six weeks. Photograph: Outline Productions

 

All that a new BBC documentary had to do to demonstrate our entrenched resistance towards gender equality, it turns out, was to exist in the first place.

In No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? (BBC Two, Wed, 9pm). a primary school class of seven-year-olds on the Isle of Wight agreed to go “gender neutral” for six weeks – intermingling blue and pink camps, asking its teacher to refrain from calling girl students “love” and boy students “mate”, ensuring that students were randomly selected to answer questions or perform tasks, and bringing in evidence of equality to expand their horizons.

As word emerged about Dr Javid Abdelmoneim’s rather innocent social experiment, sensitively handled and buoyantly presented, the online backlash before broadcast was immediate and revealing: A disgrace! Ridiculous! Attention-seeking!

This is hardly surprising. From feminism to bathroom laws, nothing enflames a reactionary quite as much as questioning The Way Things Have Always Been. After all, boys will be boys . . .

Abdelmoneim’s contention was hardly radical: from as early as seven, with little inherent neurological differences, children’s understanding of gender and their own potential within it becomes a list of received, restrictive ideas – with consequences for adult society. So, boys are strong, unemotional, higher status and better paid. (“They get into president easily, don’t they?” muses one kid, which seems depressingly hard to contradict.) Girls, as a corollary, are pretty and princesses and tra-la-la-la-la!

This leads to some tragic inculcation: girls display significantly less confidence in themselves, underestimating their capacities, while boys vastly overestimate their own. If you want to understand why gender balance is so unequal in the boardroom, take a look at the kindergarten.

Dismantling this culture is a chore, but not impossible. An embarrassed teacher recognises his loaded terms of endearment (long after the kids do) and tries to curb them. A female electrician and a male ballet dancer are among adult visitors who suggest the kids can dream bigger and wider. And when one timid girl, who has long underestimated herself, bursts into “happy tears” upon hammering the bell on a fairground strength test, viewers of any gender will consider it okay to cry too.

A second instalment next week will follow the experiment into family homes, but the documentary has already intimated that the gender norms of the culture at large are harder to defuse. You have to start somewhere, though, and why shouldn’t that be among the most plastic minds in society?

“I do not like reading,” says one young girl, “but I like reading that book.” She is speaking of a new addition to their library, The Princess in Black, whose character sees more to life than limiting expectations. In a child named Bella it may have found its ideal reader. 

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