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You can’t tell if a brain is male or female

09 March 2016, 11:05 Mandi Smallhorne

In the middle of all the sturm und drang of the past couple of weeks, I was sitting in the dreaded queue at Nedbank, where you are forced into watching the large screen in front of you unless you have the most compelling book imaginable on your Kindle.

And up popped this little animation, accompanied by this narration:

Say hi to Mike and Amy.

Mike likes to do boy’s stuff, like playing Playstation and soccer.

Amy likes ballet and picking the perfect outfit.

The only thing the pair have in common, apparently, is their love for mymoneymap.

I’ll bet the puce that spread over my face complemented Nedbank’s green livery beautifully.

Really. Srsly. Nedbank?

In the 21st century, you think it’s okay to stereotype children in this way?

Thank you, thank you, on behalf of my friends who are raising children in an already wildly stereotyped environment. You have put another brick in the wall.

We live in a pretty patriarchal society already. I remember my friend Mbali told me that as a teenager she’d asked her pastor if she could learn piano, so that she could play piano at her church. The explicit response: “BOYS play the piano, girls make the tea.”

How do we bring up girls who want to be scientists, engineers, national team soccer players, assertive and glad to use all the talents and dreams and skills they have, if this is the kind of message we send them?

How do we bring up boys who have a smidgeon of emotional sensitivity, who don’t shriek with laughter when Ndumiso Ngcobo lets on he loves watching Notting Hill (Sunday Times, 21 February 2016)? Boys who don’t think it’s hilarious that a man should carry his baby in a wrap on his back? Boys who know how to deal with emotions and relationships and are equipped to live life in this new world where you need more EQ than BQ (brawn quotient)?

It’s all around us, and despite the massive changers in gender roles since, say, the 1950s, commercial interests seem to be making it worse and worse, as poor little Riley noticed in the toy shop that drove her to give her famous princess rant:
“They want all the girls to buy PRINCESSES and all the boys to buy SUPERHEROES. Girls want superheroes AND boys want superheroes. They try to trick the girls into buying the PINK stuff instead of buying the stuff that boys want to buy. Why do all the girls have to buy PINK stuff and the boys buy different coloured stuff?”  (The only thing I want in that toy shop is Riley, who is adorable, self-assured and on-point!)

Back in 1974, Lego could confidently write:

To parents

The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls.

It’s imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it.

A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship.

A lot of boys like dolls houses. They're more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They're more exciting than dolls houses.

The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.


We’ve got this idea that it’s all hard-wired into the brain, but as Professor Gina Rippon of Aston University in the UK pointed out a couple of years back, you can’t pick up a brain and tell if it is male or female – as you can with a skeleton. “She believes differences in male and female brains are due to similar cultural stimuli. A woman’s brain may therefore become ‘wired’ for multi-tasking simply because society expects that of her and so she uses that part of her brain more often. The brain adapts in the same way as a muscle gets larger with extra use.

“’What often isn’t picked up on is how plastic and permeable the brain is. It is changing throughout our lifetime. The world is full of stereotypical attitudes and unconscious bias. It is full of the drip, drip, drip of the gendered environment.’ […]

“Segregating the way children play – giving dolls to girls and cars to boys – could be changing how their brains develop," she claims.

“’I think gender differences in toys is a bad thing. A lot of people say it is trivial. They say girls like to be princesses. But these things are pervasive in the developing brain and stifle potential. Often boys’ toys are much more training based whereas girls’ toys are more nurturing. It’s sending out an early message about what is expected in a child’s future.’”

Right. So do we really need companies like Nedbank adding to that drip, drip, drip? It’s Women’s Day again this week – that senseless celebration that has become the plaything of commercial interests which want to pay lip-service to women’s issues. How about using that opportunity to up your game, Nedbank? Announce you’ll be revisiting this advertising to make the message egalitarian and unstereotypical.

Oh, and how about putting some of the 9.4% profit you made last year into supporting NGOs? Or get behind efforts to support girls in science and technology? Or a dozen other things I can think of that would show genuine commitment to the cause of equalising opportunity and access for all women?

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- Finance24


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