Let's give Penny a promotion, and give boys more role models than just Fireman Sam

The Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service has decided to move away from using Fireman Sam as a mascot in favour of something less gendered, and -- thanks to an amazing amount of pres coverage for the mascot selection of a county fire department -- many people are feeling bad for our beloved Welsh public servant.

Fireman Sam.jpg

But before we go too hard on the Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service, let's remember a couple of things:

1. Fireman Sam is an objectively annoying show. I've had to sit through a LOT of Fireman Sam, and if I lived in Pontypandy I would personally lock Norman Price up somewhere. That child is a menace and his voice is intolerable. Sam himself is — I’m sorry— sort of wooden and boring. Penny and Elvis deserve their own spinoff, but I’m aware I’m getting a little in-the-weeds for those only casually familiar with the show.

2. The chief fire officer said he'd consider bringing Sam back if the name was changed to Firefighter Sam. This is something female firefighters have long been pushing for, and is it really such a big ask? 'Firefighter' is the actual name of the role. As long as the show is called Fireman Sam, it's awkward to elevate a female character to top billing. Why not call it Firefighters and up Penny's profile? Fireman Sam is now produced by Mattel, and I'm shocked no one there has seen this as an opportunity to sell more toys to more kids.

Language matters. Role models matter. Research has shown that between the ages of three and five (Sam's target audience), children develop their sense of what gender means and start sorting things into 'male and 'female' categories based on what they see around them. From age five to seven, they rigidly cling to the categories they've created. They take the words we speak and the images we show them and use them to construct a world view. My own daughter lost interest in Fireman Sam when she started seeing it as a 'boys show'.

It makes me sad that she has already deselected herself from some really cool jobs. But controversies like this also make me think about the impact on my son.

Perhaps even more than my daughter is inundated with princesses and fairies, my son is shown men who tend to be physically tough, strong and risk-taking -- like Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder, and Roary the Racing Car. Just like girls are learning these dangerous roles aren't for them, boys are learning that they're supposed to be physically strong and unafraid. Even poor Postman Pat -- formerly a heroically normal guy -- has gotten an upgraded tough guy song and now flies a helicopter as part of the Special Delivery Service.

These messages carry through to adolescence -- the Good Childhood Report by The Children's Society found that both adolescent girls and boys believe that being tough is more important for boys. It's not hard to see the connection between this need to be tough and the mental health crisis in adult men (who are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, less likely to seek counseling, and more likely to commit suicide than women are).

Girls need to see that they can grow up to fight fires, build things, and fight crime. Equally, boys need to see that they can grow up to be primary school teachers, full-time parents, or even just occasionally vulnerable in their physically dangerous jobs. While we're modernising role models for girls, let's do the same for boys— by giving them diverse and interesting characters to aspire to.

The results are in!


After a term of trainings, school visits, interviews, and data crunching, we have the results of our pilot. And they are really promising! Have a look at our impact report here.

Some headlines:

After our programme, we saw a…

  • 38% decrease in pupils who agreed that boys will grow up to have more important jobs than girls will;

  • 29% decrease in pupils who agreed that some jobs are only for men and some jobs are only for women;

  • 40% decrease in pupils who agreed that girls should like playing house and a 46% increase in pupils who agreed that it’s ok for boys to like playing house;

  • 52% increase in pupils who agreed that it's ok for girls to like playing with trucks;

  • 32% decrease in pupils who agreed that girls are kinder than boys are;

  • 30% decrease in pupils who agreed that boys are better at subjects like maths and science.

Equally as important, the teachers who delivered our pilot believed the lessons made a positive difference and would like to work with us again.

We couldn’t be more pleased, and while there is still A LOT of work for us to do, we’re really encouraged by these early results.

So what’s next?

This coming school year, we’re focused on integrating teacher feedback, maintaining the impact by involving parents and carers (more on that soon), growing across primary years, and expanding to additional schools. August is not a holiday month round here.

We’d love it if you read the report and came back with questions, comments, and conversations. Holla @ us!



Protest with your pocketbook

When I was pregnant with my third child, I bought baby dolls for my first two -- something you often see recommended in books on how to keep your kids from hating each other. 


I bought two nearly identical dolls, one black and one white. I'd love to tell you that this was some kind of social experiment, but I just bought the ones that were cheapest. The white doll was on sale because it emitted a weird lavender smell that was supposed to help toddlers sleep. I can only depressingly assume that the black doll was on sale because there is less demand for black dolls.


The black doll came with a purple dress, so I gave that one to my purple-loving daughter. When she and her brother opened their gifts, her face darkened. (Can you see what's coming a mile away? I could not.) She eyed her brother's blonde doll and said, "Can we swap?"


"I like the other one better."


"I ... like her skin better."


I'm not sure I've ever felt like more of a failure as a parent. Or more confused. This was my child: she has a non-white mother and looks ethnically ambiguous herself. She goes to a London school with friends, classmates and teachers of every possible skin tone. Her parents and parents' friends try their best not to be racist. My partner doesn't even like me telling this story because he finds it embarrassing.

The offending doll.

The offending doll.

I could tell you a similar story about gender-- despite my very best efforts, my daughter has told me that astronauts, farms and cars are for boys; her obsession with unicorns -- which she describes as 'for girls' -- feels beyond hope.

Here's the point: kids internalising inequality feels sadly inevitable. But where does it come from, if not parents, friends, or school?

One clue is in research released by The Guardian last week showing that, in a survey of 100 if the most popular picture books, marginalisation of female and BAME characters is getting worse.

BAME and female characters are woefully underrepresented, and when they do appear, they speak less than white male characters. That's before we even look at the roles of female characters they are when they do appear (I'd love to see a 'percentage princesses' stat). It's equally problematic that children are seven times more likely to read a book with a male villain than a female one. Not a single one of the 100 books features a BAME male protagonist, and only one -- a Roald Dahl book from 1978 -- has a BAME male character with a name.

This study only covered books, but in my five-year-long immersive study of children's television, TV is at least as bad on stereotypes and diversity.

You'll think, 'but it's definitely getting better', and we all feel this way because stereotypes absorbed by children are getting more attention. And there are more and more of books being written with more diverse characters and stories-- they're just not making it into the top 100.

As the article notes, one reason for this is a cycle where publishers believe that books with diverse characters don't sell well, and so they don't invest in those books, and of course then those books don't sell as well. While the decisions publishers and producers make are hugely influential, I think parents need to do more to influence the market.

Parents define demand. When I said above that we try our best not to be racists, I chose my words carefully. I think we're doing a great job of teaching our kids that discrimination based on gender or skin colour is wrong. But I think we could do a better job of using our purchasing power positively to diversify mass culture.

Based on what I've seen (and the gifts my kids have gotten), parents tend to buy both their boys and girls the old classics, then top those up with 'girl power' books for their daughters. I don't think very many people are buying books with female protagonists or focused on female stories for their sons. My own son has never gotten one as a gift. If we want there to be a strong market for books with girls who speak-- and girls who look and act all kinds of ways-- those books can't be just an extra thing for girls.

Similarly, white parents may be supportive of ethnically diverse characters, but I'm not sure how often they buy those books for their own children. Books about black boys can't just be for black boys. 

We can try to shield our kids from mass culture, or we can try to change it-- the ASA's new ban on gender stereotypes in ads is a great step forward. To change what our kids see, we all need to think about the decisions we make that create incentives for producers, publishers and toymakers. Equality for girls isn't just on the parents of girls. Equality for BAME children isn't just on BAME parents. It's not enough for us to say that books, shows, and toys should be more diverse-- we need to step up and put our money where our mouths are. 

I'll finish by circling back to the unfortunate baby doll incident. My daughter now loves her doll and thinks she’s pretty, which goes to show that sometimes kids need to be challenged on what they say they want.

Don't know where to start? Here's a quick plug: check out the 'For parents' tab of our site, and keep sending us your favourites!

For everyone to advance at work, we need to teach the value of 'girly' qualities

Last week, Cardiff University released a study finding that -- even after controlling for parenthood and domestic duties -- male academics in the UK reached more senior positions than their female counterparts.  

The headline, "Gender not children 'holds women academics back'", leaves a glaring question. If it's not kids, what is it? 

The report noted 'discrimination against women' as one possible cause, to which women everywhere will respond ‘No duh’. As a parent of three, I know that children and the division of household labour present massive career hurdles for women. But I also know there's something else to it.

In our time, what does discrimination against women look like? Do senior academics believe that feeble female brains aren't worthy? It's rarely that obvious these days. I think the more likely answer lies in the qualities we've all come to value socially and professionally. For example, consider the findings of two recent studies:

1. Narcissists, who have a heightened sense of confidence and entitlement, tend to be more successful, particularly in positions of power. Further, men consistently score higher in the first two of three aspects of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory -- leadership and entitlement.

2. Women are more likely to take on thankless tasks at work that don't lead to promotion.

Of course, not all narcissists are men and not all confidence is narcissism. But what men and narcissists have in common is that they are less likely to be hindered by self doubt or other people’s opinions. Whether or not this confidence is founded or helpful to society, it leads to success.

It's not useful for any of us to value arrogance, blind confidence or self-promotion. Yet many of our attempts to boost the career prospects of women take the existing values of the working world as read. Women need to be more like the people currently succeeding. We need more female narcissists. 

But what if we tried to re-frame our values around hard work, collaboration and humility? Some of the attributes seen as holding women back could actually make everyone more productive. We need leaders who reflect on criticism they receive, as well as those who will put their hand up for a share of the drudge work. The female academics in the study had higher teaching loads than their male counterparts, leaving less time for more prestigious pursuits-- but those classes aren't going to teach themselves. 

Full disclosure: I have struggled for most of my professional life to suppress ‘feminine’ qualities. I am a workhorse who takes on thankless tasks, and I am collaborative to a fault. Needing to ‘play the game’ at work stresses me out. But with the wisdom of old age, I wonder if I’ve been selling myself short.

Yes, confidence and resilience are important, but leadership is also about being sensitive to the needs of a team and getting the best out of everyone. Rather than contorting myself into an uber-confident cartoon boss, shouldn’t there be a bit more room for a leader like me?

Shifting the values of the professional world is no small task, but I think we need to start with the values we teach our children. We hold genetically unfounded but hard-dying stereotypes about what boys and girls are like, and we know that children absorb these early: that girls are 'good' and boys take risks; that girls are more empathetic than boys are; that boys are more naturally be brilliant and girls are harder workers. Most of this is nonsense invented by us. But we first assign these stereotypes to kids, impacting how they see themselves, and then we then show them that ‘girly’ traits aren’t worth as much (and that's before we even start thinking about how we value the qualities we assign to different races, ethnicities and religions). Qualities seen as feminine have long been a hindrance to professional success, regardless of whether they’re actually useful. Female academics who published more research were still promoted less, maybe because they were perceived as being try-hards rather than geniuses. 

Of course we should do all we can to build confidence in girls, but we should also be supporting our boys to be reflective and empathetic. We shouldn't want the female academics to shirk teaching or to get promoted while publishing less -- we should want male academics to be held to the same standard, and to step aside if they don't. But for the next generation to value that sort of humility and self-awareness, we need to start teaching them young.

Perhaps supporting all children to develop 'feminine' qualities will help fight the nebulous 'gender discrimination' found in this study and elsewhere. Even if it doesn't, it will almost certainly make our working world less frustrating and more productive.

How to start a culture war


A few months ago, a Muslim mother I know asked if I would be withdrawing my child from the 'mandatory sex ed' that was coming in next year.  If you have a primary school-aged child, you've likely heard something about this. Perhaps you've gotten similar questions from other parents at your school, or perhaps you're the parent asking the questions.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the DfE‘s Relationships and Sex Education (‘RSE’) guidance, and it’s pretty uncontroversial in my view—basically, children are to be taught the importance of friendships, family, and other relationships to their own wellbeing. I told her there wasn't a bit of sex in it (in fact, the subject is simply called ‘Relationships and Health Education’ at primary), but she didn’t budge on wanting to withdraw her son.  

I didn’t get why she was so obstinate about it. Then, I saw the headlines about the Parkfield Community School protests in Birmingham, in which parents at a predominantly Muslim school protested the teaching of ‘No Outsiders’, a curriculum aiming to teach children to celebrate difference and diversity, including of sexual orientation.  Many have removed their children from the school, and the curriculum has been suspended.

Ah, so we are in a culture war. It all makes sense now.  

You can see the head-on collision in hindsight. Age-appropriate guidance on teaching healthy relationships at primary schools was initially lumped in with sex education by the DfE, which has been conflated with No Outsiders (one particular curriculum written by one particular Assistant Headteacher in Birmingham), which has been lazily shorthanded by many as a ‘LGBT curriculum’. The Relationships education that will become mandatory from next year is now, to many, a ‘pro-LGBTQ+ curriculum for five year olds’, and of course this is a hard sell to some religious communities.

The question chosen for debate on last week’s Question Time -- ‘Is it morally right that five-year-old children learn about LGBTQ+ issues in school?’ -- seemed designed to fan the fire. Let me be clear—I am in favour of teaching our kids as early as possible that diversity of sexuality is a welcome part of our society. But what does celebrating sexual diversity look like to a five-year-old? It’s knowing there are different types of families, and that all of these families can be loving and happy. You’d hardly get anyone to tune in for an argument over the morality of this. In fact, many schools already teach this explicitly, as schools currently have a duty to actively promote the British Values of tolerance and individual liberty.

However, the fury No Outsiders and the new RSE guidelines have provoked with some shows us just how polarising anything related to sex can be. Getting people to change their mind about sex is about the steepest climb you can take on, which is why it’s really unhelpful that those framing the debate sexed up this topic where they didn’t need to.

A petition to allow parents the right to opt their kids out of RSE received over 115,000 signatures, and the House of Commons debated the topic earlier this month, where there was frequent reference to ‘Muslim communities’ by MPs. Would the ‘Muslim community’ be so opposed to their children learning about healthy friendships, family relationships, and different kinds of families? I doubt it.

The education and public policy sectors are excited about sex education in early childhood, which has had a range of positive effects in the Netherlands. Experts have responded positively to the DfE’s proposals, which uses existing best practice as a foundation. I’m thrilled to see that the RSE guidelines have been passed, and that the guidance starts from year 1.  But next time, let’s remember that the average British parent isn’t a Dutch education policy expert and might not jump at the idea of age-appropriate ‘sex education’ in year 1.  

I have a request, and I know it’s easier said than done: let’s make sure our language actually describes the thing being discussed. In this case, that means talking about the specific guidance given to schools about teaching relationships.

Carelessness with language means that many teachers and head teachers across the country will have a harder time implementing the new RSE guidance amongst communities that are set to oppose it. Kids in those communities may not be learning about healthy relationships anywhere else, and might even be taken out of school over this issue. At its core, the new Relationships and Health guidance is about building confidence in all children, which must have buy in from home to have a real impact. Confidence and tolerance can't be the exclusive purview of progressive families who are already committed to celebrating our inclusive, pluralistic society. If we can't bring those most inclined to be skeptical along with us, then what's the point?

The language used by those setting the terms – the government, the media, and the education sector – matters. We need to be tackling a range of issues earlier in childhood, and we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t start with our common ground. In the case of RSE, it’s that children should be kind to each other and respect each other’s backgrounds and preferences. I think almost all parents could have supported that starting point.

We’re trying to be mindful of these triggers at You Be You, and the issue of gender is certainly riddled with them. Do I want to see more stay at home dads in a generation? YES. Do we need to debate that when we talk to primary school kids? No, I don't think so -- because the point is that we want boys and girls to feel they can pursue whatever interests or talents they want. That might be caring, or it might be engineering or acting or gymnastics or politics or something that doesn't exist yet. We don't need everyone to agree to challenge gender stereotypes from a young age, but can't we get everyone to agree that children should be able to choose the path that's best for them? This means setting them up for jobs that match their interests, skills, and the market. What parent wouldn't want that?


Happy Children's Mental Health Week!


Today marks the beginning of Children’s Mental Health Week, and this year’s theme is Healthy: Inside and Out, exploring how our bodies and minds are connected.

You won’t be surprised to hear us say that we see a very clear link between gender steretyping and the mental health of children (and adults!). If you haven’t read the takeaways from Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report, they are equal parts fascinating and completely unsurprising.

Basically, children who place more emphasis on male and female stereotypes experience worse well-being than others. Researchers asked children about the kind of attributes they thought their friends would say are the most important. The responses differed by gender: ‘Being good-looking’ and ‘being caring’ were chosen by significantly more girls, while ‘being funny’ and ‘being tough’ were chosen by significantly more boys.

We sometimes get challenged on why differences like these are a bad thing. Surely girls and boys are different, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages?

Yes, absolutely. But both boys and girls are harmed when they feel too much pressure to conform to society’s expectations. Across the study, children whose friendship groups emphasised traditional gender stereotypes were shown to have lower well being than others. Those who chose ‘being tough’ as the most important trait for boys, or ‘having good clothes’ as the most important trait for girls, had the lowest well being of all.

The report, and this week, focuses on children. However, when you step back and look at adult mental health statistics — that men are drastically more likely to abuse substances and commit suicide, and women are drastically more likely to suffer from eating disorders and self-harm — it’s hard not to see a connection.

If you’ll be participatinhg in Children’s Mental Health Week with your school, class or child, we’d challenge you to reflect on whether you see evidence of the pressures of gender stereotypes impacting on their physical health, mental health or well being. We’d love to hear your thoughts and observations.


Janeen and Bilkis

Baseline survey number 2: comms on a shoestring and an unnamed foetal research buddy

With our first baseline evaluations under our belt, B and I headed out last week to our second pilot school: Archbishop Sumner Church of England Primary School in Kennington.

We’re exclited for Rosie to start delivering to her year 1 class!

We’re exclited for Rosie to start delivering to her year 1 class!

I have now reached the waddling-and-puffing stage of pregnancy, and I couldn’t blame the kids for seeming slightly distracted by my giant bump and constant snacking.

We made some improvements based our first round of evaluations: a £1.99 phone tripod bought on Clapham High Street, an improvised tower of board games to sit the tripod on (the kids kept kicking the table), and a very wise decision to cut yours truly out of the shots.

Once again, the interviews surprised us. Sadly, we weren’t too shocked that most of the children said that some jobs are just for men and others are just for women, that boys are stronger than girls, or that it would be strange for girls to play with trucks or for boys to play house. What was interesting were the explanations for some of these answers:

Why don’t the girls play sports at playtime? Because the boys take the good ball and only the purple deflated ball is left. We heard a LOT about this ball.

“Do the girls ever play football with you?”  “No. The girls play football with the  purple  ball.”

“Do the girls ever play football with you?”

“No. The girls play football with the purple ball.”

Has anyone intentionally given girls the bad ball to discourage them from playing sports? Of course not. But this class seems to have perceived sports as a boy thing, and so the boys get the first pick of ball.

It won’t shock anyone that a number of pupils responded that girls are supposed to care what they look like more than boys do. When we asked why, pupils tended to say that girls want to be beautiful, but there was more confusion about whether boys also want to be handsome. One girl said that boys don’t care about that stuff; “they just care about playing!”. We wished they all just cared about playing, or saw dressing up as a kind of playing, rather than something they were supposed to do.

“Do boys care as much about what they look like?”  “No… wait— actually they do.”

“Do boys care as much about what they look like?”

“No… wait— actually they do.”

As the pilot goes on, it will be really interesting to hear more about the pressures boys feel, and about how freely they are able to express themselves on a range of topics.

Clearly, there is a complex web of factors influencing what kids think it means to be a girl or boy. These have to do with the media, marketing, class, race, religion, random life events, and a slew of other inputs. But could a few small changes cut through this complexity? What if the boys had to turn over the good ball for a week?


Janeen and Bilkis

Baseline survey number 1: dog pee, zombies, and stifled laughter.

After months of planning, meeting, talking, workshopping, testing and fretting, we came face to face this week what it’s all been about: little people!

B and I put on our researcher hats and our best neutral tones of voice and headed out to St. John’s C of E Primary School in Bethnal Green. I think it’s fair to say that we were both a bit nervous to be interviewing twenty some-odd year 1 pupils— we had no idea how they would respond. W.C. Fields said to never work with children or animals, and I’m sure a lot of researchers would agree.

But, once we were there, they had trouble getting us out before home time. These kids were HILARIOUS. One delivered a monologue about dog’s peeing habits; another sat down with a sigh and said ‘It’s been a long day. I mean, not for me — for miss.

One of the epic students we got to interview!

One of the epic students we got to interview!

St. John’s is a great place to run our pilot because it’s full of enthusiastic, creative teachers, and is really committed to supporting the mental health and personal development of its pupils. Year 1 had just finished a unit on friendship, and we could tell that a lot of messages about feelings and kindness had already been absorbed. As we went through our survey questions, we found that there were more kids than we expected who, for example, thought it was ok for girls to play with trucks and for boys to play in the home corner. We wanted to give a gold star to their parents and teachers.

However, we also saw that there’s still a lot of work to do. Overwhelmingly, pupils thought that some jobs were just for men and others were just for women. One of the 'jobs for men’ included ‘going to university’, because ‘men are better at hard schoolwork’; one of the ‘jobs for women’ included ‘making the bed for the men’. One girl said it was ‘women’s jobs to make themselves look prettier’. Nearly all of the children we spoke to thought that men were stronger than women.

Also, we saw that, while a number of children knew that they were supposed to challenge certain stereotypes, a more open-ended conversation with them revealed that the stereotypes still remained. For example, one boy who first answered that there’s no difference between the way boys and girls play later went on to give us a long description about how boys like to play zombies and shoot them in the face and girls don’t like things like that. Part of the big challenge ahead of us lies in digging beneath what kids know is the ‘right’ answer and shifting what they really think.

We left St. John’s giddy from hanging out with these interesting little kids for a few hours— can’t wait to get on with visiting our next school on Tuesday.


Janeen and Bilkis

Hitting the ground running in 2019

Have you noticed? Gender is everywhere. Did hashtagMetoo grab our collective attention, or did it just tap into a growing wave of anger at the state of things? Either way, businesses suddenly seem more interested in the career advancement of women, higher education institutions are looking at how to get more women into STEM, the rich and famous are increasingly attaching their names to gender-related causes, and your family probably had an argument about it over the holidays.

This attention is all good and needed: Women hold 29% of FTSE 100 board positions (with only 7 female CEOs), represent less that 20% of those in STEM careers in the UK, and are paid less by 78% of companies in the UK. Even more darkly, one in five women have been sexually assaulted, 91% of rape and sexual assault victims are female, and an estimated 1.2 million women in the UK experienced domestic abuse last year. I'm sure each of us could go on and on.

However, there are a few key things missing from the way we're responding to gender inequality in society:

1. Interventions mostly focus on women and girls, but we need to focus on men and boys just as much. Why don't more men take a lead role in parenting and go part-time at work? Why don't more men become teachers and nurses? Why are men more likely resort to substance abuse and violence as a response to stress, anxiety and depression than women? Why are roughly 3/4 of suicide victims men? Both men and women suffer from gender inequality.

2. We're starting too late. There are lots of great programmes for girls, but they mainly start in adolescence. Gender identity embeds around age three. While the formation of a gender identity is a part of how toddlers learn to understand the world, this identity does not need to limit what children think they're allowed to like, how they should act, or what they are good at.

I've seen both of these issues play out in my own children. My four-year-old daughter has already strongly gravitated to what she herself calls "girlish things", but is constantly reminded by all of the adults around her that princesses can also be brave, play football, and like math. My two-year-old son loves balls and trains, but he also loves baby dolls and dancing. Most of the adults around him latch onto how he's going to play for Spurs and not how he's going to be a great dad or dancer.

If we don't start teaching boys that it's ok to express themselves, nurture others, and show vulnerability, we're never going to chip away at the walls women keep running into in adulthood.

This is why we started You Be You. Our aim is to break down gender stereotypes starting early in primary school -- for kids of all genders, races, religions, and social backgrounds. To do this we'll need the help of everyone who surrounds a child: teachers, parents, carers, and other children. It's a massive undertaking, but we're taking it one step at a time.

Step one for us is the classroom. We were amazed that busy and surely exhausted teachers, head teachers and researchers were willing to volunteer their evenings to help us, but it turns out that people who work with children really see the need for this. We now have a set of fun and creative lessons that can be used to teach existing subjects, and that teachers are excited about. Our pilot launches next month, and we can’t wait to measure the impact these lessons have on pupils.

It's early days, but we feel encouraged by how much support we've already gotten, from the education sector, local MPs, and our generous funders at Unltd. Watch this space-- we'll be updating periodically on how the pilot is going!


Janeen and Bilkis