My daughter has shared a classroom with her best friend for years. But they have barely interacted with each other in school since kindergarten, because he is a boy and she is a girl.
Before they started school, boys and girls played together. They chased, played, hid, and giggled. They shared interests, stories, tickles, and affection.
Now, they barely acknowledge each other.
As they moved through the school system they were told that they should not be friends. They were told this by the clear separation on the playground that is obvious to everyone; boys play soccer, girls huddle in groups talking. They were told this by the teachers who use gender to separate children for things like games, lines to the bathroom, group work, and contests. They were told this by the gender segregated sports and activities they joined after school.
They were best friends.
It makes me sad to walk by their classroom, to see them both there, and not there. Those kids don’t exist anymore, they have succumbed to the inevitable separation of gender that pervades our society.
A separation that hurts us.
Separating children by gender hurts us for many reasons. One big problem is that separating our species by males and females leaves no room for anyone else. Those who are born “different” and do not fit neatly in either tick box of M or F are forever othered.
A few years ago I told my daughter that not every one is born male or female. That there are more options than that. She paused for a moment and then asked, “Where do they go to the bathroom?”
Gender segregation hurts us in other ways too; segregation of males and females is also regarded as a major contributor to violence against women.
Gender segregation in the workplace, sports, friend groups, and on and on. After a certain point in our lives, males and females simply stop interacting with each other as much, except in the dating and sexual realm. Males and females are taught to see each other as potential partners, not friends and confidants. We start to know very little about the way each other think in these new pockets of existence and literature abounds with self-help books to teach us to talk to each other again.
Simply put, gender segregation denies us the opportunity to know one another as equals.
Just as gender segregation contributes to men committing violence against women, empathy is one of the antidotes. Many scholars report strategies laden with empathy building to reduce the staggering number of women who experience violence at the hands of men. The problem is, these two concepts work in opposition to one another: How can men and boys build empathy for women and girls when we take away all the spaces where that empathy can develop?
I imagine a day in the future when these boys grow up and are educated about violence against women. They will be told that they should have empathy for women and be an ally to them.
Will they wonder, when and where was that empathy supposed to evolve?