“Is it a boy or a girl? Do you know, yet?”
When I was expecting each of my children, this was generally the first question I was asked by anyone who could see I was pregnant. And then as people learnt the biological sex of my now-arrived child, they would comment on what they are sure I was hoping for in the next yet-to-arrive child based on a combination of the child they could see + cultural norms of the country we lived in.
This resulted in some very curious conversations with clearly invested strangers.
One older lady pulled me aside to tell me how lucky I was to be having another girl and told me about my bump being low so this was surely another girl.
Another lady commented on my toddler and how gorgeous she was and how it would be lovely to now provide my husband’s family with a son.
Another well-intentioned person touched my toddler to check if they had a penis or not – as it wasn’t clear to them. (We quickly told them off, and made it clear their intentions were not at all good in our eyes).
Another lady asked why I would have another child when I already had a boy and a girl.
And another lady asked me if I would have a fourth and hope for another girl as this was very lucky in Vietnamese culture.
Recently I have been to some wonderful online workshops with Dr Emily Meadows @emilymeadowsorg alongside a number of my colleagues as we explored ‘Gender’ together. The English language makes things so very binary – we don’t have the lovely nuance of language that other rich cultures have to be more open and speak using words that embrace and include rather than divide and label.
My favourite questions in this workshop were: What is a female and What is a male? How do you define these? (Spoiler is that you can’t – you cannot accurately define these words and so how do we create definitions?). This led to some amazing conversations that looked into the schema that we build of Gender-based on all the cues we are given as young people and this can absolutely start with how we speak to expecting parents and their toddlers too.
At schools, we must work hard to build Policy documents that are lived around Respect for ALL students, parents, staff and faculty and work to make these live in our communities. To ensure the mental health and safety of our minority groups and to support families that may not have the support they need to flourish, it is important that we are talking about this work both in classrooms, with parents, with divisional staff and with our faculty/staff members so that we are growing people’s awareness of their own gender stereotypes and schemas (ex. Girls always… boys always…) so we can create safe school spaces for everyone. We don’t have to agree on what we believe but we do have to agree to understand how to respect students and their families so they feel safe and supported.
Consider the wording of your Handbooks, letters, and emails. What is up on your walls? What mentoring or Health conversations are you having? What policy is shared with parents and students? What procedures do you have to facilitate student clubs or to support staff/faculty who have opposing beliefs? How are you collecting data on bias or gender-harming bullying to inform your community and make changes?
We must take action – particularly in International schools where external support for families may not be as robust as in other countries – to support all of our students and stakeholders with ongoing conversations, learning, education and policies, to honour the great diversity we share together but also make clear that Everyone is Respected here.
A Bias incident includes conduct, speech, symbols, imagery or expression that is motivated by prejudice. At ISB our Anti-bias anti-racist team have been educating staff, faculty and students using the following strategy* as you respond to a bias incident:
- Interrupt. Speak up. Don’t let the speaker continue. Consider the safety of the person(s) involved. Consider the person(s) initiating the behaviour. How can we educate our valued community member(s) and help them support an inclusive community?
- Question. Ask a simple, calm question. “what do you mean by that?” Pause, allow for them to pause and reflect.
- Educate/Invite – assume positive intent. Hate isn’t behind all hateful speech. Sometimes ignorance is at work, or a lack of exposure to diverse communities. Share why you find that behaviour to be offensive, and why it doesn’t have a place here in our community. Invite people to reflect on the impact of their behaviour and why it was harmful.
- Echo. It can be hard to be the only one speaking out against bias or racism. Reinforce the message of everyone belonging and valued in our community.
* Reference: Speak up at School
And we need to consider what we are saying to our expecting parents, and to our toddlers and preschool students too – to help them see Gender as a Rainbow of amazing colours – not binary in our language or expectations. And we must Interrupt, Question, Educate, Invite and Echo if we want to keep building a community that belongs and celebrates its diversity.