What are the limits of gender equality? Lessons from international studies.

Last September CNN reported on kindergartens in Sweden that aim to do away with gender stereotypes from an early age. These schools avoid linking specific toys, colours, aspirations and so on with any particular gender. At these schools, all children are encouraged to explore different activities, develop different likes and dislikes (not associated with their gender); they are also referred to by the gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’.

Inspired by this work I collaborated with 3 colleagues (Yuliya Yershova, Leila Kaliyeva and Bakhyt Amirova) to research the views of pupils and parents in secondary schools in Kazakhstan.

The idea of gender equality has acquired a range of meanings in popular discourse, such as gender parity, equality of opportunity, equity, etc. On the one hand, the idea of gender equality seems to be taken for granted – as something beneficial and something everyone should strive for in the area of policy, and everyday life in general. For example, gender equality was one of the UN ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (reported on in 2015), and it is part of the agenda of the subsequent UN project ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. On the other hand, our reflection on the context in which we either live, study or work – for us Kazakhstan – prompted us to question whether the benevolent idea behind gender equality is taken for granted in this country.

We conducted a survey on gender among students of the 9th grade (15- and 16-year-olds) in one of the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools in Kazakhstan in June 2018. The survey was based on an opportunistic sample of 46 students (30 girls and 16 boys). We also interviewed ten parents about their responses to the state of affairs in gender equality in the school.

Our research suggests that gender equality has a particular meaning in the school context of Kazakhstan among students and parents, and that they prefer to establish limits within which gender equality should be ‘allowed’.

Learning points:

  1. Gender equality is generally perceived by students and their parents in Kazakhstan as a benevolent concept:

Most of the respondents define ‘gender equality’ as equal rights and opportunities between the male and the female gender, although they do not touch upon other related and, perhaps, more controversial issues, such as the role of sexual orientation in this matter or gender identity which differs from the sex assigned at birth.

There were also some radical responses. For instance, one of the female parents does not accept the idea of gender equality at all, specifying certain physical differences between men and women to which it is simply impossible to turn a blind eye: ‘We are arranged differently, we think differently, we have different levels of stress-resistance’. Another parent claims that nowadays the focus on the empowerment of women in gender equality debates causes men to be overshadowed.

  1. Many gender stereotypes are normalized as integral to the idea of gender equality:

Even though there is an overall support for gender equality, the respondents fail to recognize many gender stereotypes and inequalities they trigger, and see ‘the differences’ between genders as part of the idea of gender equality.

This is clear from a number of personal responses by the students (their interest in school subjects, grades they have received), as well as their opinion about the suitability of certain things for males and females: toys, colours, emotional characteristics, clothes, accessories, physical appearance characteristics, profession, responsibilities in the family and other relationships and interactions.

To give some examples: the students think that toys such as dolls and kitchen utensils work best as toys for little girls, whereas robots and pistols are for little boys. Such emotional characteristics as being emotional, cowardly and supportive suit girls more, while being strong, brave and, interestingly, rude – suit boys more. One third of the students who are mainly females see both men and women at work and believe that, in addition to developing professionally, women should also do all the household chores. Both genders state that men should initiate activities in romantic relationships more, such as asking out, calling, texting, paying for food and drinks, etc. Similarly, both genders almost unanimously agree that boys should help girls more with some everyday tasks, such as opening doors, helping carry bags, let them go first when queueing, giving up their seat in busy public transport.

  1. Some gender stereotypes are challenged:

The views of the students on the physical appearance of males and females are less stereotypical which suggests that the younger generation is ready to challenge some stereotypes.

While some of the students do say that boys should be muscular, and that girls should be slim, wearing makeup and manicure, 37% of the students think that girls can be muscular and boys can take care of themselves.

Another less stereotypical view is expressed regarding clothes. 63% of the respondents think that everyone may wear whatever they wish. Half of the respondents also claim that there is no difference between boys and girls when it comes to accessories (e.g., earrings, bracelets or rings, backpacks). The students believe that all colors are suitable for both genders, but that black and white are the most ‘equal’ colors.

  1. Gender equality should have limits after all:

The most interesting discussion was sparked by the question of whether gender-neutral kindergartens, such as in Sweden, would be suitable for Kazakhstan. All the parents unanimously reject this idea, explaining the difference in the mentality of Sweden and Kazakhstan as well as various problems that children may encounter after attending such a kindergarten.

The parents emphasize that both genders should have a right to make their own choices regarding, for instance, colours they wear or the occupations they pursue. However, sending children to such gender-neutral kindergartens is considered by the parents nonsensical as each child should know his or her gender differences, and that historically gender differences have been part of the Kazakh culture. Girls have always been perceived as future wives and mothers, and therefore, they should be more feminine and caring. Boys, on the contrary, should be nurtured to be brave and powerful.

The parents say that boys and girls are originally born different, and thus, do not have the same abilities, physiological and mental, so they need to be brought up in different ways. Parents believe that a child raised in such a kindergarten would not survive in the Kazakh society with is culture of quite traditional gender roles interlinked with strong religious views. The parents express three main worries they would have if such kindergartens were in Kazakhstan:

  • losing gender identity and raising weak feminine boys and strong masculine girls;
  • same-sex marriages becoming popular and normalised which would ‘destroy the traditional understanding of what family is or should be like’;
  • and ‘an alarming rise of psychological disorders’ among children which might be another negative consequence of having neutral-gender kindergartens.

Clearly, the school education context of Kazakhstan represented by students and their parents suggests that gender equality is perceived there as a benevolent phenomenon only within certain limits. These limits are controversial topics, and the description of these limits may perhaps trigger a range of thoughts and emotional responses on the part of readers.

There appears to be a long way to go in raising awareness about gender equality in Kazakhstan. Questions remain: how would we do this—and where else across the globe do these limiting views hold sway?

Iryna Kushnir

with Yuliya Yershova, Leila Kaliyeva and Bakhyt Amirova

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