It’s different in Sweden…

When looking at gender and children, it quickly becomes clear that we’re living with such entrenched ideas about how what girls and boys are like and what ‘normal’ is that it’s hard to imagine things differently. Sometimes it’s hard for people to even see that there’s ever a problem because we’re trained from a very young age to believe that the different ways we treat people based on gender come are indisputable, natural and wholly appropriate.

So sometimes we need to look further afield to other countries for examples of models that tackle this gender-based stereotyping head on. One place to look to is Sweden because they’ve made what feel like quite radical choices in the name of equality.

In 2010, Sweden was named as the most gender-equal nation in the world, but they want to go further and come a gender-neutral nation; a place where your gender would have no effect whatsoever on the way you are treated and the way you live your life. This approach is not welcomed by everyone in Sweden; there are still many who hold very traditional ideas about gender roles, but the government is pushing through the controversy.

In 2012, Sweden introduced the gender-neutral personal pronoun ‘hen’ – weirdly similar to our Scottish term of endearment that I think can be applied to both male and female, but is usually slightly patronising or seen as a diminutive, as in “How you daein’, Hen?”
The Swedish hen combines the words for he and she – ha and hon respectively.

Part of the appeal of this move towards full equality is that nobody can be discriminated against because of their gender, but further it makes it clear that anyone who doesn’t identify as either female or male is just as valid a human as anyone else. And the Swedes recognise that this thinking has to be introduced from birth so that the next generation can embrace this equality.

The National Curriculum guidelines state that preschools should “counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles” and give all children “the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles.” So the education system not only acknowledges that children from a young age might be limited and disadvantaged by the idea of gender roles that have been around for years and years, but they call on the teachers to actively work against it.

In preschools, children are free to wear what they want, use gender-neutral pronouns, play with any toys (although I imagine that there’s less pink and blue being employed anyway), and they might already have a gender-neutral name. Teachers will address the children by their actual name, using hen, or en masse as “buddies” rather than saying, “Good Morning, boys and girls”.
There is a lot of outdoor play in any weather so fashion easily gives way to practicality with children wearing rain and snowsuits. Without gendered school uniform of trousers/shorts for boys and flimsy dresses or skirts for girls, everyone is free to engage in the same adventurous activities.

It’s important to state that not everyone in Sweden is happy with this. For some there is a sense that this has been brought in too quickly and brings in a whole new set of rules for children to follow. All of a sudden they’re discouraged when they behave in ways that fit with gender stereotypes when those actions might feel natural. Some educationalists believe that it’s too confusing to introduce children to an ‘inbetween’ or third gender when they are very young and trying to grasp hold of concrete terms. But it seems that the measures have been put in place with a hopeful view of a future where those traditional binaries might be forgotten.

In terms of cultural production, there are already books for young children embracing this journey to gender neutrality and challenging all kind of different stereotypes. OLIKA (Different) Publishing brought out the first book to use hen – the award-winning, Kiwi and the Beast Dog. In their International Catalogue they write about using hen:
“Using a gender-neutral pronoun won’t give you a gender neutral world, but in Sweden the introduction of a new gender-neutral pronoun made us all think: When is sex of importance? Why is it so necessary to know what sex someone has? What benefits can there be if we could meet as human first and woman/man second?”

The range of books they offer – all in Swedish at the moment I think – all present as everyday a range of different lived experiences such as girl inventors, families with adopted children, same sex parents, boys who are caring, a male dog who always wears a pink dress. Their mission statement gives a model of a potential way to look at performance for children. I read these paragraphs replacing ‘books’ and ‘literature’ with the word ‘performance’ and found it fits in with my own aims:

‘OLIKA Publishing house produces high quality children’s books that challenge stereotypes. We believe in bringing our society’s diversity, for example with regards to gender and ethnicity, into children’s literature so that more children can recognise themselves and their ways of living in the bookstores and on the library shelves.
‘We know that the underlying values that are a part of all literature matters, and we want to provide children, parents, pedagogues, teachers and libraries with books that, in a natural way, challenge old, traditional and limiting stereotypes, instead of reinforcing them.’