Definition - Gender sensitisation refers to theories claiming modification of behaviour of teachers and parents, towards children that can have an effect on gender equality. Gender sensitizing is about changing behaviours and our outlook towards the views that we hold about genders. It helps people examine their personal attitudes , beliefs and question the 'realities' they think they know.

Gender roles in a patriarchal country like India are very stereotypical and strongly ingrained. Society starts influencing boys and girls at a very young age and expects men and women to behave in a certain way, which when not followed one is shamed for being different.

However,with changing times,it is important to tackle these issues at a young age. A large part of this responsibility comes to parents and schools.

Research –

Research suggests that from an early age, children’s understanding of gender is influenced by their experiences with family, culture and lifestyle. The broader community, child care environments and the media also play an important role. Boys and girls often experience responses and expectations from those around them due to their gender. Gender role stereotypes often influence the way boys and girls begin to experience life. ‘Boys are often verbally encouraged to become actively involved in a variety of gross motor activities while girls are encouraged to become actively involved in quieter and more passive fine motor activities. ‘ (MacNaughton and Williams, 2004, p. 83).

Change begins at home –

Gender biases are seen right from the time the child is born. The colours used to decorate the room and the clothing styles and toys are typical to boys and girls. Parents need to make a conscious effort to pick neutral colours, clothes and toys for their children.

For boys, parents often tend to choose stories that have a sense of achievement and for girls, those that are more focused on relationships. It is important to pay attention to the kind of storybooks children read and ensure that these do not perpetuate gender stereotypes. At the same time, it is equally important to give them the freedom to choose what they read, advise them, but don’t impose your views.

Another important aspect is the choice of toys. It has a significant impact on a child’s perception of gender. Many parents want girls to play with dolls and worry if their daughters prefer playing with blocks, although the latter can tremendously enhance children’s mathematical skills.

Also, often, parents and even educators tend to use endearments such as ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ for girls and ‘you guys’ for boys.

Making these small subtle changes will go a long way for your child.

Steps schools can take -

To start with, schools should have same rules for boys and girls. Let me share an incident that made me change our grooming policy in my school. A boy once came to me and told me – You know it is unfair that girls have long hair, while boys have to keep it short. Why can’t I sport long hair too? I had no answer to this question, hence I changed the policy and let boys have long hair to be neatly tied up.

The Human Resource Ministry needs to look at changing textbooks to make them gender neutral. For eg. Traditional textbooks generally show pictures of women in the kitchen, while men are seen carrying a briefcase going to work.

Teachers should use gender-neutral language. Choose plural pronouns, such as ‘they’ and ‘them’,instead of masculine pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘him’. Words such as ‘fire-fighter’, ‘flight attendant’, ‘garbage collector’ and ‘humankind’ can easily be used to replace the use of ‘man’ as a generic noun or ending.

Also, schools should encourage children to participate in theatre and choose any role, irrespective of gender.

I have noticed on various occasions that while teachers and parents appreciate girls’ hairstyles, boys appearances are often ignored. Children pick up on these subtle messages and which affect their subconscious.

Influence of Media -

Media also plays a very important role. For the longest time, advertisements were stereotypical where women did household chores, while men went out and worked. It is only now that a certain section of media has become conscious of this bias and has come up with those that portray a new story, where women are seen in all kinds of professions.

Books children should read -

• Baby Dance by Ann Taylor, tells children that the responsibility of tending to children does not have to be solely borne by mothers.

• Made By Raffi by Craig Pomranz – the protagonist Raffi is passionate about knitting.

• Free To Be... You and Me by Marlo Thomas, celebrates values such as individuality, tolerance and comfort with one’s own identity

• William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow, explores the resistance faced by William from his brother and father when he asks for a doll. It also examines how playing with dolls can teach children to become nurturing.

• Housework is Everyone’s Work by Kamla Bhasin, a collection of nursery rhymes, teaches that everyone is important in a family and that working together makes for an easier life.

• Little Kunoichi, the Ninja Girl by Sanae Ishida, highlights the importance of perseverance.