Girls, girls, girls!
When our first grandchild was born a few months ago we already knew that the baby was a girl. Even before the news was confirmed by the wonders of ultrasound, we had sort of expected it. All the other recent arrivals in our extended family have been girls: a grand-niece for us, a second grand-daughter for my songwriting partner (a collaborator is almost a blood relative), and a daughter for my wife's language tutor (related to us by the future perfect subjunctive, a tie that my wife says is thicker than water).
Advance knowledge of the baby's gender is said to help the bonding process, though I doubt that it can make much difference to such a primordial emotion. What it does do is decide the colour of the babygro. ‘Pink for a girl’ is a tradition that goes all the way back to the 1940s, but it gives pause to modern grandparents who aspire to gender-blindness. Is it the first step in social imprinting? Should we go instead for black or yellow? But then she might grow up to be a Goth or a Liberal Democrat. Not that there's anything wrong with either, of course. In the end we chose a blue-free pattern.
Having realised that mine was the first UK generation to be colour-coded after inspection of its genitalia, I began to wonder how the expectations of the 1940s and 1950s have affected me. Our school had two doors with ‘GIRLS’ or ‘BOYS’ carved in stone above them. The playground was divided by railings and inside, at least in some classrooms, the girls sat on one side and the boys on the other. This sexual segregation, however, was half-hearted compared to Scotland's religious demarcation. There was a separate school for Roman Catholics even in our small village.
At our primary school the girls tended to be at the top of the class, but not for long. Academic achievement is determined less by brainpower than by parental expectations, and in that mining community girls were not expected to go to university. Nor were boys, come to that, and the frustration felt by the teachers was obvious even to us kids. On leaving for a senior school I won most of the prizes, which prompted a dose of corporal punishment – ‘the strap’ – from a vengeful lady maths teacher. (On my hands: we weren't barbarians.) She and I both knew that my talent for algebra was vastly inferior to that of her favourite pupil, a quiet girl who started a family shortly afterwards.
Things have changed a lot in 50 years. In the mining industry women have yet to break the glass ceiling (if that's the right cliché) but they are well established in the professions. Among medical specialties the pace of feminisation has varied, with sexual and reproductive health in the vanguard and surgery in the rear. General medicine is somewhere in between. When I took ill in The Netherlands a couple of years ago I was admitted to a splendid hospital and was unsurprised to find that the whole team of junior physicians was female. What took me aback was that they all dressed like fashion models. Even with my life in danger I found it hard to take the ward round seriously.
Aha, I hear you say, that's irrational masculine prejudice: as a bow tie wearer you're hardly in a position to criticise Jimmy Choo shoes. OK, point taken, but I do think that one of the few biological differences between the male and female brains is an interest in clothes. This was why, no matter how long I hung around the delivery suite as consultant on call, I could never really join in the midwives’ conversations. My wife remembers what she was wearing on every significant occasion during our married life. So could I, I suppose, but only because I make each jacket last a decade.
This is not a big deal but there is one male/female difference that worries me. In my youth I always had my nose in a book, but somewhere along the line the habit died. Today the Amazon man calls regularly but his parcels are all for my wife. We're not atypical. Most fiction is bought by women and book groups around the country are predominantly, if not exclusively, female. Being bored by stories seems to be a feature of the ageing male. Perhaps reading the Mr Men to our new grand-daughter will reignite my enthusiasm for literature.