The social construct of gender is so ingrained in almost every culture around the world, that even before a baby is born, it’s gender can mean a matter of life, death, or even… a party. That a person’s biological sex can be connected to gender even before his or her birth is a clear indication of how many cling to what they feel is the importance of gender.
The concept, and potential for inequality, only gets trickier from there. From childhood to adolescence and then adulthood, traditional gender norms are pushed and perpetuated, further segregating, and at times, unbalancing, the sexes. This concept is seen across the globe, as traditional gender stereotypes are promoted in both wealthy, progressive countries, and those that are war-torn and struggling. For some, it can feel like a daily struggle trying to work through all the potential barriers in place due to strict gender codes, and any progressive legislation or work done to begin breaking down this tired rhetoric is very much welcomed.
Yet, Sweden, a country heralded for its attempts to infuse gender neutral thinking, especially in regards to young children and education, is now wondering if perhaps they’ve gone too far when it comes to gender equality. Since 2008, when the Swedish Department of Education appointed the Delegation for Equality in Schools, the Swedish government has spent $110 million Swedish crowns ($16.3 million) on promoting equality in schools. The stipulations go as far as to say that teachers must actively counteract gender stereotypes and promote equality within their classrooms.
To anyone who has heard stories of young girls being overlooked in the classrooms for their boy counterparts (or vice versa), these stipulations sound like a step in the right direction. However, despite the feelings of success from some, others, like Elise Claeson, a columnist and former equality expert at the Swedish Confederation of Professions, feel that too much gender neutrality will eventually cause more problems:
“It is important to have your gender confirmed to you as a child. This does not limit children; it makes them confident about their identity…. Children ought to be allowed to mature slowly and naturally. As adults we can choose to expand and change our gender identities.”
Others that agree with Claeson feel that pushing gender neutrality within Swedish schools is too radical, and not taking in the concerns of “traditional” parents, many of whom feel that dissolving the construct of gender can have negative consequences.
This concern over “the end of gender” is nothing new. NPR reported on the phenomenon last summer, sharing a few examples of where parents, universities, and even clothing lines are adopting gender-neutral ways of thinking. And yes, there are indeed more stories today than ever before about gender-neutral babies and little boys sporting pink toe nails, but despite these progressive notions of gender, mainstream thought (at least in the Western world) still gets skittish and loud when anyone, including children, stray outside traditional gender boxes.
One only needs to flip open any toy catalogue to see how fiercely gender differences are promoted amongst children on a daily basis. With daily reminders of gender stereotypes, can a school really go too far in promoting gender neutrality? Those behind gender neutral schools in Sweden think not.
Ingrid Lindskog, from the Swedish National Agency for Education, says that schools should strive for gender equality. “Equality issues should be weaved into the lessons. It should inform how teachers plan their classes, put together groups, and how they react to pupils treating each other badly – if a boy oppresses a girl, for instance, or the other way around. All Swedish schools have a responsibility to counteract traditional gender patterns.”
Even the Swedish national curriculum for preschools agrees, “Preschools should counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles. In preschools, girls and boys should have the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles.”
Despite the dissent of some, Sweden continues to provide an excellent educational framework that shows that infusing true gender-equality within the classroom has the potential to create well-rounded, balanced children without playing into tired stereotypes that tend to cause more harm than good. Will other countries follow in Sweden’s path as they watch the success in these schools play out?