“The only gift is a portion of thyself.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

For this week’s bias we chose to remain in the light-heartedness and playfulness of the end-of-year celebrations that have just ended and on a topic that we are passionate about: gender bias and in particular behaviors that risk reinforcing it from childhood.

Just before Christmas I was working on a webinar with a group of women managers, of different ages and backgrounds, on gender stereotypes. Dialoguing on the topic together for some time already, we had the opportunity to explore its origins, impacts on professional life and career, risks, tools to neutralize them etc., so it was not a group new to reflection on these topics. I had just finished a very interesting book, actually read for preparing another project, for a group of teachers “Le manuel qui dezyngue les stereotypes” by Nathalie Anton, published at the end of the year in France by Eyrolles.Towards the middle of the book, the author proposes an amusing tool, which she herself defines as caricature, and I had the intuition that it could serve to play with the theme together with my group. So, in the midst of the pre-Christmas atmosphere, I used it as a warming up exercise, called it using the French expression “Cadeau impoisonné?” (which could be translated as Poisoned Gift?).

I bring it back to you in its entirety:

Have you already given or are about to give one of these toys as a gift To a little girl To a little boy
Construction vehicle like excavator or tractor
Cooking pans
Fire truck or police car
Racetrack for cars
Princess disguise


I invite you to fill out the chart, as my participants did at the beginning of the webinar, and then answer the questions in the last part of the post.

We’ve talked about gender stereotypes often in the cycle of posts on bias on the Nexus blog. They can be defined as “a set of beliefs that people hold, about what it means to be a woman or a man.” Their content evolves over time and varies across cultures. Gender stereotypes engender expectations about social and professional roles that are linked to a person’s gender.   Over the years, a series of widely publicized “pop” research suggested that these roles, for biological reasons, were divided, simplifying, into roles of action for men and care for women. The evolution of studies has allowed to question a number of myths and to establish that the similarities between the brains of men and women are much more than the differences (see, among many, the beautiful and rigorous book by Gina Rippon “Gendered Brain“). Myths, with their simplifying appeal, are very difficult to deconstruct and abandon. As Gina Rippon points out, for example, if by now no one could seriously argue scientifically the inferiority of women, another gender prison becomes, the one of the supposed “complementarity” between men and women and its praise, even behind good intentions to ensure that female characteristics such as the ability to empathize, to listen, to relate with others can emerge. Good intentions which, however, generate stereotypes, albeit positive, that are equally imprisoning: complementarity becomes another way of defining men and women in a static, limited way, and of making complexity with all its facets fit into the duality of the “action/care” paradigm.

Children begin very early, from the age of 2/3, to categorize the world and make inferences about how it works. On gender this means that very early on they begin to associate actions, activities, professions, roles with one gender rather than another. Parents, teachers, books, television, video games can reinforce these inferences or challenge them, propose alternative ones.

The exercise on the chart sparked a lot of laughter among the webinar participants, but also exchanges and reflections. Needless to say, for most of the group, the results were fairly predictable. Ships, diggers, tracks, trucks etc. given to little boys, makeup, dolls, pans etc. given to little girls, with a few rare exceptions.

This exercise was a cheerful, non-guilty moment to reflect on one of the many micro behaviors that, when we are aware of them, are revealing of our mental models, in this case regarding gender. If we take a time to breathe and analyze, if we slow down, they can give us insights into how we function and possible alternatives. For example, after doing the exercise without thinking too much we can stop and ask ourselves: what are the patterns that have guided my choices? What does it mean for me to be a woman? man? What do I associate with the genders? What activities characterize a woman and a man? What can a woman do? A man? What does the gift I am giving for this baby girl or boy mean? What implicit messages am I conveying? What are the effects of these messages? Are they messages of encouragement, of openness? What impacts will they have on his or her choices? What do they nurture and what do they discourage for her or him?

Taking up the quote in the opening, if it is true that “Every gift is a part of us,” by choosing it for the younger generation we are also transmitting our model, and with it an idea of the future, a possibility/impossibility of abandoning what has been true for centuries and no longer works and making room for something different. And on this transmission and its implications we can choose to be aware of the consequences we produce.