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Cinderella’s a girl, so why does she wear blue?

17 December 2012

closing-the-gender-gapA friend has just bought glittery pink shoes for her sister’s children. Can you guess whether they’re boys or girls? Of course you can! Pink is for girls (and so is glittery). But that wasn’t always the case. In 1918, Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department (a magazine for retail professionals) explained that “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

That’s why the Virgin Mary wears blue, as do Cinderella and Snow White in Disney’s 1950 and 1937 cartoons. On a far more sinister note, the Nazis made male homosexuals wear pink triangles, since the colour’s masculine connotations associated it with a preference for men. (Lesbians wore the black triangle of “asocials”, a group that included women who had had abortions and prostitutes).

You can find out more about when pink became girly in Jeanne Maglaty’s article for the Smithsonian. The point is, it happened recently and for reasons that are linked to commerce and other social behaviours, not genetics. Stereotyping, whether positive or negative, is insidious, helping to reinforce the idea that some kinds of discrimination and oppression are somehow “natural” – the mother not the father should stay at home to look after a sick child because women are better carers, for instance. Then if you have to choose between a man and a woman for a promotion you can say objectively that a man will be more available and take less time off.

Aaron Kay of Duke University and his colleagues have just published the results of an experimental study of how stereotypes influence judgement. They found that people exposed to positive stereotypes towards African Americans were more likely to apply negative stereotypes too, and to believe in biological explanations of group differences.

Combating stereotypes will involve “changing norms, culture, mindsets, and attitudes” as it says in the introduction to a session at today’s OECD Gender Forum on “Closing the gender gap”. The main theme of the conference is the economy, and the main argument is that discriminating against women is not only immoral, it’s a waste of money. Government ministers, business leaders and members of civil society will be talking about what they should do to “achieve gender equality in economic opportunities”.

The picture in the top left corner of this article is a good summary of the scale of the task. It’s the cover of the book being launched at today’s meeting and illustrates the fact that when you establish a dichotomy, you imply a hierarchy. Try it with some neutral-sounding pairs to begin with: above-below; written-spoken; inside-outside. Now have look at the book and frame what you see in terms of word couples. There are three adult males and three female children. The men are higher up. The one black person of the six is lower down. One of the men is either holding out a helping hand or warning the one girl actually doing anything that the ladder she’s using to bridge the gap is too short.

Most of the OECD recommendations on what to do are consensual (address cultural barriers, provide affordable, good-quality childcare for all parents…) but I imagine there’ll be a lively debate around others, including what some see as flagship reforms. For example, the Financial Times reported in September that many businesses and some governments oppose EU plans to have quotas of women directors on the boards of listed companies. Katja Hall, chief policy director at the CBI employers’ group, backed the UK government’s line, saying: “We are not convinced that EU quotas will be anything other than a token gesture.” Others argue that women at the top would act just the same as their male colleagues anyway and that for somebody losing their job, knowing there was a woman’s touch to getting fired isn’t any comfort.

In other words, the division between men and women is one of many in our society and any victory in the fight against sexual discrimination will only be partial if it’s achieved in isolation from efforts to overcome other forms of inequality.

Useful links

OECD Gender Initiative


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