"Boys are natural born risk takers, whereas girls are less competitive and more likely to be cautious".
It’s the standard line trotted out whenever we talk about gender differences and sport. And no doubt people can back up the claim by reference to any number of observations from their daily life.
But why might this be the case? Where does girls’ "innate" cautiousness come from? Right about now, some readers are going to launch into a supposedly scientific explanation that begins in the Savannah and involves men outwitting Sabre tooth tigers while women sit at home and go online shopping. Or something like that.
But there’s a simpler explanation: girls are taught to be cautious and rewarded for avoiding risk-taking behaviour.
On a recent Saturday morning at a sports class I saw a small example of how this learning happens. My daughter was climbing a rock wall — with harness and everything — alongside a boy around the same age. The instructor helped both my daughter and the little boy up to the first toe-holds.
But that’s when things started to change. The little boy was encouraged to climb higher and higher. He was given help co-ordinating his hands and feet. At one point, the instructor took to the wall herself, climbing up to push him ever higher.
Meanwhile, my daughter perched there waiting. While she was assisted a little, much of this was simply holding her up, rather than actively encouraging her to seek out find toe-holds.
In total, the whole episode took just over three minutes. Of those three minutes, my daughter was being helped for just over one minute. And during some of this time, the assistance took the form of simply placing a reassuring hand on her back. The boy was given double that time, and was consistently challenged to scale ever higher.
I’m not suggesting that the instructor was deliberately giving the little boy more attention than my daughter. Nor do I think she was consciously encouraging the boy to extend himself while she primarily concerned herself with keeping my daughter safe. But, conscious or not, the outcome was that the boy came away believing he was capable of climbing the rock wall and deserving of attention and my daughter did not.
Now, it may be that I’m one of those most vile of lifeforms: the overbearing middle class father who constantly whines about how his little girl didn’t get a fair go. Perhaps. But there is a fair swathe of research that suggests that there’s a gender bias when it comes to instruction, one that extends well beyond my daughter and her sports class.
And this isn’t confined to primary or secondary school, but begins at pre-school. A 2005 study of 20 Swedish pre-school teachers — 10 female and 10 male —published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, for example, found that play was highly gendered.
"Girls participate to a lesser extent in physical activities and when they do, they are often interrupted," wrote the researchers.
Often this wasn’t deliberate, but was, unsurprisingly, a matter of the teachers repeating the kinds of play that they had engaged in as children.
"It is apparent that male preschool teachers’ own experiences of different sports activities made a lasting impression on their work in preschool. Today, when they work in preschool they try to support children’s needs in physical play", noted the researchers.
"Female preschool teachers tend to prioritise calm play, which they also, for the most part, have experienced in their own childhood. Female preschool teachers emphasise the importance of social development in play while male preschool teachers accentuate the significance of physical development."
And it’s not just physical development that is affected by gender. Other research suggests that girls are often not encouraged — or given the opportunity — to extend themselves intellectually.
In her 1994 book Schoolgirls, which was based on a year with eighth graders at two Californian schools, for example, Peggy Orenstein noted "that boys are referred for testing for gifted programs twice as often as girls".
Orenstein notes that this may be because giftedness is regarded as rare in boys and is therefore more often noticed. Since girls’ intellectual giftedness conforms to gender stereotypes, their abilities are regarded as normal, and therefore not seen as requiring the kinds of special attention of a giftedness program.
Happily, when my daughter had a second go on the climbing wall, she was paired with another little girl. And what do you know? Both received about equal attention.
If we want our daughters to be brave, courageous, physically active, and feel equally deserving of attention, then we need to be vigilant in challenging gender stereotypes. Because even with the best intentions, if we are not consciously rejecting outdated gender roles then by default will continue to do what we’ve always done and confine our girls to the bottom rungs of life’s rock wall.
Christopher Scanlon is a Melbourne-based writer and a co-founder of http://www.upstart.net.au, the website for emerging journalists.