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"I was told that my behaviour was inappropriate, that it was unladylike to make so much noise and especially unforgivable to take off my shirt. I was confused and asked why my brother could do these things but I could not, and I was told, quite simply, 'You are a girl.'"

This from Yetide Badaki, the Nigerian-American actress, in a recent essay on gender expectations for the online magazine Lenny.

Her essay gave me pause, not just as a woman but as a parent.

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Leah McLaren: If I want my son to respect women, I need to teach him to embrace the 'girlish'

As a mother of boys, I take a particular interest in gender expectations and the subtle ways in which we place them on our children.

I have written in this space before about how I enrolled my son James (now 4) in ballet lessons because he went through a phase of rejecting all things "girlish." A number of readers wrote in directly (in some cases rather angrily) to say they felt this was bad parenting on my part.

In rejecting dolls and cleaving to Nerf guns, James was just being a normal boy, these readers told me. As a mother, I ought to let him be and stop tampering with "nature."

I don't buy this myself. Time and time again, science has disproved the popular idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. There is little hard evidence to suggest that men and women have strong innate psychological tendencies to assume one circumscribed role or another.

In fact, multiple studies have shown that when it comes to behavioural impulses, males and females are far more similar than different, despite popular mythology to the contrary.

Gender stereotypes can influence beliefs and create the impression that the differences are large, Zlatan Krizan, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, told ScienceDaily in 2015. His study on psychology and gender difference, one of the largest of its kind, looked at the behaviour of more than 12 million people through various aggregated sources.

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What he and his fellow researchers found was an almost 80-per-cent overlap for more than 75 per cent of psychological traits, "such as risk taking, occupational stress and mortality." In a nutshell, while men and women might well experience life very differently indeed, our underlying psychology is not so very different at all.

What is wildly different, of course, is what the world expects of us – and this usually applies from birth. There is a reason why most small boys seem to go through a phase of endless showcasing and making jokes about their genitals in public, and most little girls do not.

It's not because little girls are any less interested in or predisposed to be proud of their own bodies. It's because we give different signals to boys and girls about what's acceptable (or even "safe") behaviour in a social setting. We might do this subtly, even unconsciously, but we are still likely doing it even when we wish we were not.

There is also a reason why, just the other day, I watched James choke back tears after a massive wipe-out on his scooter. His knee and elbow were bleeding, but he kept saying "I'm fine, I'm fine," and breathing through the pain. Two minutes later, however, he flew into an absolute rage because I wouldn't buy him an ice cream.

In that moment, I saw that, despite all my best intentions, somewhere along the way my boy had learned one of the central tenets of masculinity: That anger is safer than vulnerability, which must be hidden at all costs.

Obviously, I'd never said this to him (what self-respecting parent would?), but nevertheless he had picked it up. Ballet lessons, it seems, are no match for the power of playground social conditioning.

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While we've seen enormous social progress over the past couple of decades, including same-sex marriage and growing recognition of the rights of transgendered and gender variant people, in other ways we've become more conservative as a society when it comes to gender expectations and children.

Consumerism is where you see this most clearly. You can't buy a baby bonnet on Amazon these days without selecting an appropriate gender category first, and even disposable diapers come in blue or pink. What has proved a boon for toy and garment merchandisers has been decidedly less amazing for children. Responsible parents might try our best not to project gender expectations on our children, but our consumer choices tell a different story.

And when we try to buck the trend, the results are telling.

I took my nine-month-old out in a pair of hand-me-down pink bloomers last weekend and was asked several times if he was a girl. When I responded "nope," most people either laughed or recoiled in surprise. One man was visibly disgusted.

And this was in a park where same-sex couples are unremarkable and biracial families are almost the norm. A park where men and women sunbathe topless beside others praying toward Mecca. A park in London, one of the most tolerant, diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world.

Personally, I find it amazing that a male infant in pink bloomers still has the power to shock, but there you have it, folks: Progress works in mysterious ways and gender expectations die hard – especially when we don't think we have them.

Brittany Andrew-Amofah, a public affairs commentator, describes how white feminism has traditionally excluded women of colour from important policies and gender equity in society. The Globe and Mail
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