(this post added to a few hours after publication)
I'm still puzzled and somewhat concerned about a phenomenon which I first noticed last year, in which I have noticed young primary school students at a public school self-organizing into separate-sex groups, and my puzzlement continues into this year. Last year, during that boring moment of the day when parents stand around in the hot sun outside of classrooms waiting for the kids to come out of class, I noticed that the kids' schoolbags had been placed in a mostly sex-segregated order on the bag hooks at either side of the classroom door. It now occurs to me that the arrangement of the hooks in two separate and equal groupings perhaps prompted the kids to think of themselves in terms of a binary concept, and the binary concept that would probably come to the minds of innocent young children is gender (God forbid that they should ever start sorting themselves into religious or racial groups). But there is of course no compulsion for these young students to self-organize their bags in any way, so this spontaneous sex segregation triggered my curiosity. I asked one student why this was consistently happening, and I was told it was the girls responding to a perceived problem with some boys interfering with other students' bags.
Some time later I was helping to supervise children in this class and others of the same year at school excursions, and again I noticed a consistent pattern of most of the kids grouping their gear into separate gender groups. Again I was puzzled, because there wasn't any obvious conflict or negative attitudes about gender among the kids. I reflected awhile on the subjects of sex segregation, unnecessarily gendered marketing and imposed gender stereotyping in Australian society, influenced by reading that included feminist and scientific critiques of ideas about sex and brain development that have attained some scientific credibility in the last ten years or so. The autism expert Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge in the UK is one of the most prominent advocates of the idea that gendered behaviour and autism are both the result of developmental differences in the brain mediated by the hormone testosterone. In the last year I have discovered many problems with BAron-Cohen's research and his writing, and I have written blog posts about these issues. It was a bit of a worry to me that many examples of sex segregation and legitimized sex stereotyping in contemporary Australian society could be noticed in my everyday life and in my community, and many of them are not hangovers of "the olden days", but are institutions or products created within the last ten years or so. I wrote a couple of blog posts on this subject.
Today in my position as the parent of a schoolkid I walked into a classroom and for the first time realized that the school desks were organized into two large groups, one group composed entirely of one sex, the other group of students all the other sex with two exceptions. This class is the same age cohort as the students I wrote about last year, but not exactly the same class. Again, I had to wonder whether the binary nature of the arrangement of the desks had prompted this order, or was it imposed by the teacher, or was this way of thinking something deeper and broader than the influences from within this school? I asked the teacher about this, and was told that it was the kids who had chosen their own places at the desks. Some boys liked to keep away from the girls, but some of the other kids enjoyed mixing with other-gender friends during free play, I was told, by a teacher who seemed to be as puzzled as I was. So what's going on with the children? I'm of the opinion that gender stereotyping, including self-gender stereotyping, is one of those nasty cultural influences that parents of today need to be aware of and concerned about, just like the sexualization of little girls in marketing and the advertising of processed foods and fast foods during children's TV shows. Will the future workplaces of these students be as sex-segregated as their classrooms are today?