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What are you having?

25 January 2021

7 mins

It’s the question we ask, almost without thinking, when someone shares the exciting news that they’re expecting a baby. But why do we ask? And is it a good question?

Why do we want to know the sex of the baby?

You could certainly argue that we ask because it’s one of the few things we can know about a brand new human.  So much is yet to be discovered, and will unveil itself slowly over years to come.  But does the sex matter?

It certainly used to.  While progress has been made towards gender equality we still live in a patriarchal society where men have more status and power than women.  In this patriarchal tradition a boy was seen as a blessing to a family, someone who will continue the family line.  A girl, well, an expense, better luck next time. 

Jen Brister presenting her TED talk

Comedian Jen Brister, in her 2019 TED Talk, discusses a situation in which a woman bursts with excitement about how much better it is to have boys, in front of her own daughter. These attitudes are deep rooted and have not yet left us.

But what’s the harm?

The latest pregnancy craze to sweep the world is the “Gender Reveal” party.  At these parties the expectant parents reveal the sex of their baby to their family and friends often by revealing a blue or pink cake, or setting off blue or pink fireworks or glitter bombs.  Some parents find out the sex themselves this way, the information having been provided by the doctor to the baker.

A few of these parties have drawn media attention for extreme results such as starting huge wildfires in California, Florida and Arizona, leading to deaths and vast destruction of property.  But while these examples are eye-catching they can also serve to distract from the real harm of this trend: reinforcing old fashioned ideas about sex and gender being binary (having one of two values) and, more damagingly, that our sex is our defining feature. An out-dated worldview where every boy is Action Man and a future CEO, and every girl a princess and future secretary. 

Pink and blue cakes are often the tips of very large stereotype icebergs.  Blue means sports gear or cars, and pink means dresses or ballet shoes.  Before the baby is born we’re starting to limit how we perceive them, and the interests we will expect them to follow.  These stereotypes are a big part of what maintains the patriarchal structure by separating men and women and telling us they’re fundamentally different.  Boys are strong and born to lead.  Girls are delicate, and born to please. 

In the BBC Documentary “No more boys and girls” an experiment showed how easily we fall into treating babies differently based on their perceived gender.  Over time this cumulative behaviour fundamentally defines a child’s sense of who they are and what we expect of them.

Baby Edward is dressed in so called girls clothes

Before the baby is even born a lot of decisions will be based on their sex (i.e. their genitals).  The colour the nursery will be painted, the clothes and toys friends and family will buy.  The strict gendering of items aimed at children has led to campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys which promotes the simple idea of making all toys available to all children.

Ros Ball and James Miller documented the ways in which the world treated their son and daughter differently from their first days on Twitter and in their book The Gender Agenda, so struck were they about the cummulative power all these tiny messages had over their children.

8 year old Daisy Edmonds explains to her mum what is wrong with the gendered clothes they find in Tesco

Supermarkets and clothing brands have been widely criticised for producing sexist clothes saying things like boys have “big ideas” and girls have “big smiles”.  Even 8 year old Daisy Edmonds can see this trend is ridiculous and diminishes her autonomy and her potential.

The satirical “Man Who Has It All” exposes how ridiculous gender stereotyping is by applying the messages usually targetted at women to men instead. Statements and assumptions we’re used to, and so blind to, are brought into stark clarity.

The genitals, and thus the sex, of a baby tell us little if anything about the person, and as Arwa Mahdawi writes in the Guardian “throwing a party to tell the world what kind of genitals your kid has is a deeply weird thing to do”. If we don’t believe in the stereotypes then why do the genitals (i.e. the sex) matter any more than blood type or hair colour?

What if we’re wrong?

We should also consider that the guess we make about genitals could be entirely wrong.  Between 1 and 2 percent of people are intersex. People who are intersex are born with bodies which cannot be readily categorised as male or female.   The existence of intersex people alone tells us that sex and gender are not binary, i.e. that there are more than 2 options, and this has been backed up by science for years.  A blurry ultrasound image can easily miss subtle differences and a sex may be wrongly assumed based on an overly-simplistic “penis or not” view of sex.

Even if the baby appears to have the expected physiology for a boy or girl they may not identify that way when they begin to form and understand their gender identity.  Being pushed into unnecessary and rigid stereotypes can make life even more difficult for people who are transgender – those whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

But I want to show an interest!

It’s normal to want to take an interest when someone we know is pregnant. It’s great! It’s an exciting thing and we want to share in that excitement and maybe help and support that person.

Thankfully there are some great suggestions out there for things to say or ask that don’t involve genitals.  Kelly Holmes suggests 5 questions such as “What do you need help with” and “Can I bring you a meal when the baby’s born?”.  While Vivian Owen’s suggestions include “What can I take off your plate?” and “Can I babysit for you?”.  Being a parent is hard work. These questions might be just what your friend wants to hear.

And remember if you want to talk about someone’s baby without centering the sex you can use gender-neutral language:

“I can’t wait to meet them!”
“They’re going to be so loved!”
“What’s their due date?”

Further reading

If you’d like to learn more about gender stereotyping, we recommend the following accessible resources, as well as those linked in the article.

Cover image of the Gender Agenda book

The Gender Agenda by
Ros Ball and James Millar

Ros Ball and James Millar were struck by the difference in the way society treated their son and daughter and how from their earliest days their children were pushed and moulded in different directions by forces all around them.  This funny and accessible book documents their observations.

Review in New Statesman
Buy from Waterstones

The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon

In this popular science book Gina Rippon explains in simple language the history of our attempts to justify sexist ideas by finding differences in the brains of men and women, in much the same way as we tried to prove the superiority of white people,  and takes us through the latest science which is proving that a brain is a brain.

Review in Nature
Buy from Waterstones

Cover of The Gendered Brain book
Cover of the How Not To Be A Boy book

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

In his characteristically funny autobiography, comedian Robert Webb considers the ways in which expectations of masculinity and manhood plagued him from school sports to the low expectations we have of fathers and how these attitudes harm all of us, whatever our gender.

Review in The Guardian
Robert Webb in conversation on the book
Buy from Waterstones

Cover photo by freestocks on Unsplash

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Reflections, comments, discussion and opinion on EDI topics from Loughborough University staff and students

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