LJP Youth: Gender Norms Still Pervasive in the Land of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”

Léa-Claire Tersou is part of a new initiative called LJP Youth. The LJP team has partnered with the Bilingual School of Marcq-en-Baroeul, a high school in Lille, France, to create a space for young, aspiring journalists to comment on the world around them. We hope you enjoy what they have to say. 

As I sit in class, I see a girl raise her hand, and I already know the words that will come out of her mouth: “um, I’m not sure but is it…” or “I don’t know if I am right but…” or “maybe I’m wrong but…” Anyone who has been to school can relate; the majority of girls are hesitant to answer questions in class, or voice their opinions.

One day, I came across an interesting report that was commissioned by the Ministère des Droits des Femmes (Ministry of Women’s Rights) examining gender stereotypes of children in France.

As French children, we are immersed in a culture that advocates “equality” and “no gender distinctions.” Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood— is our national motto. We study it at school, we write essays about it, and the adults give us examples as if inequality is a thing of the past. As a girl currently in high school, I look around me and can see that while perhaps blatant discrimination and inequalities are admittedly rare, there is still an underlying imbalance between the genders that subtly manifests itself in the ecosystem of high school.

As I sat at dinner with my fellow classmates one night, I asked them about the Baccalaureate – the exam French students take at the end of high school that determines where they will continue their studies. Of the three different Baccalaureate exams – ES (economic and social sciences), L (literature), and S (science) – It was clear that there were significantly fewer male students in the humanitarian subjects (ES and L), while girls seemed put off by the Scientific baccalaureate.

We are taught that people are treated equally, most notably in school. In France, at least in my experience, girls are always pushed slightly more towards social and humanitarian areas of study, and discouraged from working in science or business. This is not generally done on purpose, of course, but when we usually relate girls with certain professions, it is partly due to the stereotypes that were created in our minds when we were young. The Ministry of Women’s Rights report states that by the time children are about 6 years old, their conceptions of “female” and “male” are set. When we teach a young child what a nurse is, we use the image of a woman, on the other hand when we show a scientist, it is usually a man.

According to the Ministère d’Education Nationale (Ministry of National Education), “when a boy deems himself good at math, 8 out of 10 boys will chose the Scientific Baccalaureate. When a girl deems herself good in math, only 6 out of 10 girls will chose the Scientific Baccalaureate.”

Which Baccalaureate to take is more or less a personal choice: in many schools, the subject is chosen for you. You can request to change, but must present a strong case in order to do so. But the paths that this initial choice lead to in the future become the problem. Overall, humanitarian fields pay less than science or politics, and consequently women make less money than men do on average. According to Steve Horwitz, professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University, women tend to go into the social sciences, while men tend to go into business or the sciences. While this is not the only reason for a wage gap, it is one of them.

The number of women pursuing higher education is much lower than men, and the period of time for which they will pursue higher education is also shorter. An analysis by Unesco showed that “men surpass women in virtually all countries at the highest levels of education, accounting for 56% of all PhD graduates and 71% of researchers.”

This can be partly attributed to the fact that women tend to make career decisions taking into account that they may eventually have to care for children, for example prioritizing part time jobs or jobs that will allow them to stay home more, according to Horwitz.

The ideals of what it means to be a man or a woman become twisted and confusing for the young adolescents and children, who are unsure of their own identity. We unknowingly embody characteristics of a “man” or a “woman” that have been shown to us since we were young.

Some Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden, have largely cast aside traditional gender roles, and can attribute this success to breaking through the stereotypes at a young age. Countries that have overcome gender stereotypes, for example, by eliminating judgment of “stay at home” dads or encouraging girls to pursue science or business, seem to be doing much better, both economically and socially. Sweden’s policies on gender equality aim “to ensure power and resources are distributed fairly between the sexes, and to create the conditions that give women and men the same power and opportunities,” according to the Swedish government site on gender equality.

This is not about forcing girls to play with Barbies and boys to collect Hot Wheels. This is not about whether girls should be encouraged to wear dresses instead of pants. This is not about whether parents paint their daughters’ rooms pink and their sons’ rooms blue. The true problems arise when men and women define themselves and their place in society based on nuanced gender roles that were perceived as “normal” since they were children.

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  1. […] Gender norms still pervasive in the land of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. As French children, we are immersed in a culture that advocates “equality” and “no gender distinctions.” Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood— is our national motto. We study it at school, we write essays about it, and the adults give us examples as if inequality is a thing of the past. As a girl currently in high school, I look around me and can see that while perhaps blatant discrimination and inequalities are admittedly rare, there is still an underlying imbalance between the genders that subtly manifests itself in the ecosystem of high school. […]

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