Encouraging diversity involves doing more to challenge outdated stereotypes

The status and visibility of women’s sport have undoubtedly improved in recent times — at the top level, at least. The pay disparity between men and women in some sports is closing, there is better marketing and more generous sponsorship, and women’s sport now receives far more screen time than was the case even a few years ago. In one respect it was good that Fallon Sherrock’s outstanding recent run in the Grand Slam of Darts, only ending after a close match against world number two and 2020 world champion Peter Wright, didn’t dominate the news. On the other hand, at a time when the 2021 World Chess Championship is taking place, it is not a little disquieting to read that there is not a single active woman player in the chess world’s top 100. Progress, then, but much more still to do — in sport and of course in life more generally — to meet the Fawcett Society’s vision of “a society in which women and girls in all their diversity are equal and truly free to fulfill their potential creating a stronger, happier, better future for us all.”

The alarming chess fact quoted above comes from a recent Guardian article to coincide with the series of matches between reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi to determine the world chess champion. According to the article, the greatest ever female chess player, Judit Polgar, says that it is “just as possible for a woman to become the best as any guy. But there are so many difficulties and social boundaries for women generally in society.” A development biologist at Manchester University, Emma Hilton, points out that chess has an “extremely skewed starting pool”: there are far more boys learning to play the game than girls.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. The smash-hit Netflix drama The Queen’s Gambit, credited with fuelling a resurgence of interest in the game of chess, has a female player as its central character. In real life, meanwhile, the English international master Jovanka Houska says that it is far more common to see women chess players and commentators than it was only a few years ago.

Diversity benefits us all in so many ways. The outstanding 2016 film Hidden Figures focuses on the stories of three black women who worked in different capacities for Nasa in the Sixties. It documents the racial bigotry — ingrained and structural as well as everyday and casual — that was prevalent in large parts of the United States at the time (ie within the lifetime of many people alive today). And yet what is uplifting about the film is that it drives its message home in a non-didactic and often humorous and irreverent way.

To take just one — laugh-out-loud — example: the embattled head of the Space Task Group (played by Kevin Costner), frustrated by yet another setback (at this point the USA was demonstrably lagging behind the Soviet Union in the space race), berates a roomful of identikit white-skinned and white-shirted middle-aged men, demanding an explanation for his team’s lack of progress.

Research shows that diversity fuels innovation, increases productivity, profitability and stability and has never been more important.

Kay Hussain, Chief Executive Officer, WISE, the campaign for greater gender balance in STEM, quoted on the Women in STEM website

So diversity is good for business and the economy, in all sorts of ways. But it matters at a more fundamental level too: it is essential to enabling all individuals to realise their potential in life — to ensuring genuine equality of opportunity for all, regardless of who they are.

Teaching young children about the importance of diversity is, of course, hugely important. But that alone is not enough. Stereotypes are often deeply, if subconsciously, ingrained in the habits, impulses, thoughts, language and actions of many adults. It is no surprise, then, that — wittingly or otherwise — outdated attitudes are sometimes picked up by children. That’s why taking active steps to challenge outdated attitudes and to break down gender and other stereotypes is an urgent priority. Schools can play an important role.

In May 2021 groups including Girlguiding UK, the Fawcett Society and the National Education Union wrote to the then UK education secretary, calling on the government to address the language and ideas used in schools that perpetuate gender stereotypes. They argued that the curriculum, books and language used in schools — calling girls “sweetie” or boys “mate”, for example — reinforce outdated ideas of how girls and boys should look and behave. They said that schools should “actively challenge gender stereotypes” from an early age before they become ingrained.

Part 2 of this blog will highlight the steps that the toy giant Lego has been taking to challenge outdated gender stereotypes and champion diversity.

Image at the head of this article by Christoffer Borg Mattisson from Pixabay.

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