Gender discrimination through my son's eyes

Different perspective: How our children view gender discrimination.
Different perspective: How our children view gender discrimination. Photo: Getty

Within minutes of my son, Noah, entering the world he was labelled and placed in his category - boy - and so begins gender stereotyping.

The handsome baby boys come home in blue blankets, and the pretty baby girls are wrapped up in pink. Gender specific norms are established at birth and these ideologies and images are constantly swirling around us. But in my blissful state of new motherhood it was the last thing on my mind. However, looking back to that day in the hospital eight years ago, I know that's when it began.

It's just a fluffy baby blanket, right? Can something so minor represent something so major? Or is it how we as a society identify and label boys and men versus girls and women? We can teach kids to dream big and not be constricted by what society deems as gender norms, but shouldn't these dreams include changing rules and laws, too, so their dreams can actually become reality? Amazingly, ancient traditional stereotypes still exist in North America and around the world. Gender discrimination, although much better than 50 or even 10 years ago, still occurs.

Flash forward eight and a half years (nine in April, as I am constantly reminded!) past the blue blanket scenario. Noah was reading a piece I wrote for a Canadian magazine in which I recommend kids books that challenge gender stereotypes. Noah immediately recognised a photo of Malala Yousafzai on the cover of her book. It's a young readers edition called I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up For Education And Changed The World.

Noah and I discussed Malala from an advocate perspective when he was 6, but his questions are complicated now, and I don't always have the answers. I try to encourage him to think for himself and not just follow what others are doing. Over the years Noah and I have talked about gender equality, children's rights, and humane and compassionate living. I don't shy away from teaching him about the world. But explaining why girls and women (still!) don't have the same rights as boys and men is hard to comprehend, since I don't fully understand it myself.

We talked about Malala, who in 2012, at age 15, was shot in the head for speaking up for her right to attend school, just like the boys in Pakistan. She survived and won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work last year. I stumble over my words when I try to explain why Malala is fighting for girls to attend school in Pakistan. As a strong, independent, single mum, I am overwhelmed with sadness telling my son that in some situations women are not treated fairly.

"But everybody is equal!" he said during our Malala conversation at dinner that night. "We are the same on the inside!" He was really confused. So am I. Gender discrimination in Pakistan may seem like an issue far away from what kids here are used to. Partly because, well, Pakistan is far away and issues such as not allowing girls to attend school is foreign.

But I don't have to look as far away as Pakistan to teach Noah about gender discrimination. Sadly, all I need to do is attend an NHL hockey game. (No, I am not saying the two issues are anywhere near equal, and I hope all girls can attend school way before I hope women can take on the men of the NHL.)

That said, I am a Canadian hockey mum but feel free to insert another professional sport. It's nothing new that only men play on these teams representing their city, while in many cases, women cheer them on in cute outfits. I grew up with this. It was considered normal and rarely questioned. But now as a mum I see the world through the eyes of my son - and that changes everything.

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When Noah was younger we attended a Toronto Maple Leafs game wearing our matching jerseys. I asked if his dream was to play for the Leafs one day. He smiled shyly and said, "No. I want to open an animal sanctuary. Would you ever want to play for the Leafs?" Aside from being too old, I am also too female. And by that I mean I am a woman and not permitted to play in the NHL. I could however (if I were 10 years younger) apply to be an "ice-girl." What's an ice-girl you ask? Oh, they are the half-dozen scantily clad pretty young women in low cut tops that appear during intermission pushing shovels across the ice - you know, to clean up after the men.

These ancient sexist attitudes need to change, but enough people need to care about the issue and speak up for this to happen. It's one thing for a girl to dream of being a professional hockey player and another to learn she won't make it to the big leagues because she's a woman. Yes, she can play on women's teams and in the Olympics, but she is forbidden in the NHL. In my hometown of Toronto girls are allowed to play on boys little league hockey teams. But at a certain age these girls won't be allowed to pursue the NHL should they choose to.

So we sit in the stadium watching the famous ice girls jiggle and clean. It's a fine balance between ignoring sexist issues and hoping Noah doesn't realize what's going on. Do I bring it up? I decide to casually ask what he thinks of the girls cleaning up the ice in between bites of salty popcorn. Noah responds, "Do the ice girls get to meet the hockey players and go into their dressing room? Because if they do I want to be an ice boy! I can shovel and skate!" I tell him you have to be a girl to get that job. He responds, "That's so unfair! That's not equal rights." He pauses and adds, "It's the same as girls not allowed in the NHL. Who makes the rules?"

I believe as mums we have the power to change these rules and the way gender roles are perceived. For example, instead of forbidding Noah to watch Disney movies where big strong men rescue weak helpless beautiful women, we talk about each movie afterwards. We discuss what is similar to real life, what is fantasy, and what could we change if we made our own movie? I don't want to shield Noah from popular culture I just want him to approach it from a perspective of equality and to question everything that doesn't seem fair.

We also have the power to encourage our kids to take action against gender discrimination. It's not enough to have big dreams if they can't be fulfilled. Dreaming of going to school if you are a girl in a country that doesn't allow it is not enough. It's not enough to dream of being a dancer, a baseball player, a doctor, a nurse, a firefighter, or Prime Minister/President if "rules" in society will prevent our kids from achieving these jobs and dreams based on gender. We should encourage our kids to change the rules, both written and societal norms.

And when serious gender discrimination occurs in far off countries like Pakistan, we can use this as an example of human rights violations and to speak up for others that are being treated unfairly. Malala is an inspiring role model not just for girls but all children. Let's talk about Malala's inspiring story, her fight for peace and her mission to change the world to a place of equality.

Let's inspire our kids to "Be The Change" so all children will have the same rights, regardless what colour blanket they are swaddled in at birth.

Miriam Porter is a writer who lives in Toronto. She can be found at www.miriamporter.ca and Twitter: @MiriamRiverP.

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