Breaking the Mould
The NEU worked with five primary schools over two years to consider how ‘traditional’ gender stereotypes could be challenged in nursery and primary classrooms.
“They have aisles for boys and girls so boys don’t get the wrong things”
Stereotypes are invidious things. They underpin prejudice and discrimination and place constraints on people’s lives. As the 9 year old child quoted above expresses so eloquently, they often prevent us from doing things we want to do – or oblige us to make choices that, without the pressure to conform to such rigid expectations, we might not make.
Arguably, ‘traditional’ gender stereotypes are both the most pervasive and the least acknowledged. From the moment of birth, society works to confine behaviour within rigid lines – children are taught which colours, toys, games and books are for boys and which for girls. Choices about what they will play with or wear are made for younger children and, by the time they come to make their own, they have already learnt what is expected of them and will often behave accordingly. Many children may chafe against these constraints. Some will be encouraged to do so but others will receive, at best, sympathy or even censure.
The evidence of how gender stereotypes impact on children and young people is stark and unequivocal.
- Although some girls achieve better test scores than boys – and are more likely to go on to higher education – this does not translate into equality at home, at work or in society in general. The gender pay gap remains stubbornly hard to shift and women continue to be under-represented in sectors such as science, engineering and technology. Efforts to recruit men into careers such as teaching and nursing continue to enjoy limited success.
- The permanent exclusion rate for boys is four times that for girls and more boys enter the youth offending system than girls - some boys feel that learning is not seen as ‘masculine’.
- Primary age girls are known to associate being slim and conventionally attractive with social and economic success. Girls as young as twelve feel under pressure to be sexually available – and boys feel similarly pressured into making such demands on girls.
- Sexual bullying and bullying in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity remain widespread and are closely linked to ideas of how women and men – and boys and girls – are expected to look and behave.
In 2006, the Women and Work Commission identified the need to challenge gender stereotypes in education and ensure that children’s aspirations are not limited by traditional ideas about what girls and boys can do. Challenging gender stereotypes is likely to have widely beneficial effects in terms of improving educational and life outcomes for both genders, helping young people and adults to have respectful and fulfilling relationships and improving behaviour in our classrooms.
Indeed, a significant body of research already exists to support this argument. Research has demonstrated how classroom discussions about gender constructions and using literature as a vehicle for deconstructing stereotypes can have a significant impact on educational engagement and learning. Furthermore, continuing inequalities in the workplace and unequal roles within families can be traced back to stereotypes about expected behaviour and attitudes which are learned by children when they are of primary school age, and even younger.
As a society, we regularly seem to confuse gender with sex. Many of the differences that exist between men and women (such as physical strength and appearance) are linked to biology – and in our highly mechanised world, many of these are much less significant than they used to be. Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine. These definitions are culturally dependant and highly malleable – and, perhaps, it is for these very reasons that we police them so strenuously. In reality, there are very few things men and women cannot do equally well. Nobody involved in the project was attempting to deny that there are some inherent differences between girls and boys but only to question why we often exaggerate those that do exist – and sometimes even invent others.
Many children’s books and TV programmes still portray a world in which men are Fireman Sam and Postman Pat and women are either mothers or Princesses. More than ever, toys and games are marketed as being ‘for’ one gender or the other – dolls and ovens are for girls and trucks and construction toys are for boys. Even things as apparently innocuous as colouring books are promoted as being for one gender or the other and feature completely different content. We all know that men can cook and women can drive – and yet seem determined to keep these facts from our children! Given this context, it was hardly surprising that many of the teachers engaged in the project encountered very stereotypical views about what constituted ‘women’s or men’s jobs’.
Despite some recent advances in children’s books and films, the ‘Princess’ culture – in which young girls are encouraged to prize physical appearance and likeability over intellectual ability and to see social status as closely linked to being in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex – is still widely promoted.
At the same time, many toys aimed at boys encourage the idea that masculinity is about action – and coming out on top whatever the cost. Boys in fiction are much less likely to be seen displaying empathy or nurturing skills – abilities that are generally assigned to female characters.
So many of the influences acting on children seem to imply that there are ‘typical’ ways of being a boy or girl, thereby seeking to minimise awareness of the wide variety of gender expression which exists within as well as between the sexes. Many young people and adults will be unable or unwilling to conform to such narrow definitions of masculinity or femininity and, as a result, endure needless challenges. These societal expectations also play a significant part in generating the negative outcomes outlined above for children of both sexes. They are, in large part, a result of the expectations placed on girls and boys and the roles society chooses to assign them – and we could change these expectations.
One way to bring about this change is to educate children for a world in which such stereotypes need not govern our behaviour and people are free to pursue the lives they want without feeling that certain things are expected of them – or opportunities denied them – because of either their biological sex or gender expression. As one teacher explained:
“We should be preparing children for the future we hope they will live in – a diverse, non-sexist one. We challenge racism by breaking down stereotypes but we don’t do this anything like as effectively with gender. Why aren’t we preparing them for a world in which women don’t want to have children or men want to stay at home and care for them? If we refer to these possibilities at all, it is very much in passing. How many households are there already where the woman is the higher earner – and yet we are not educating them for this very real world.”
Many referred to the need to help children to make choices that suit them and meet their needs.
“They need to leave at 11 with built in resilience. Sometimes it is hard to make the choice to resist stereotypes. We can try and give children that opportunity at school but outside they will be under pressure not to make those unconventional choices. On the one hand, it is good to promote the idea of school as a magic place where you can be free and safe to explore identity without the fear of prejudice but we need to talk to children about the reality of the pressures they will face – we need to build their confidence levels, their emotional resilience. Girls in particular need to learn the value of risk taking and also the importance of being assertive and asking for what you do – and don’t – want.”
Some teachers were surprised by how deeply some stereotypes were entrenched and how resistant they were to change.
“You really have to keep repeating the messages and monitoring their responses. You need to question their views about what it’s OK for girls and boys to like – even when they are saying what you want to hear. There is a danger that they just learn by rote that ‘boys and girls can do anything’ without really realising how much pressure there is on them to behave in certain ways – or how much they take the stereotypes for granted. Time and again, I thought I’d cracked it and then the next day somebody would tell me that boys can’t wear pink or girls don’t like cars.”
“There is a danger that they will tell you what they think you want to hear. I think they really do understand that people shouldn’t be prevented from doing something because of their ethnicity, for example, but they seem to take for granted that some jobs are only for women or men – and think that a child who is interested in non-gender stereotypical things is odd or unusual. They may not bully them – because they understand that is unkind – but they still think they’re peculiar!”
“There also seems to be a disturbing idea that equality is attainable for some people but not others. I’m not naïve about the impact of things like socioeconomic status but, working in a school where many of the parents are in low skill jobs, it’s important that we consider anything that raises aspirations for all. Many of our girls do not expect to continue in education and, although we live in an area of high unemployment, many boys are still being raised to identify themselves as much as anything in relation to their jobs as opposed to things like being good parents or partners.”
Teachers acknowledged that:
“You can’t look at gender in isolation. You have to be aware of issues linked to culture, faith, socio-economic status etc. However, it’s important to recognise discrimination when it occurs. Whatever their background, we recognise that some children may hear sexist messages at home but we are clear that such attitudes are never acceptable here, that everybody’s tastes and choices are equally valid and that, when you grow up, you can be whatever feels right for you.”
Schools produced lessons and schemes of work that specifically addressed gender stereotypes. They found resources (in particular a number of children’s books) that challenged them in engaging ways. Examples of how these were used are included in this report.
The teachers took opportunities to challenge stereotypical representations of gender or to highlight and endorse non-stereotypical expressions of gender whenever they occurred – be it in books or other resources, during classrooms interactions or manifested in children’s behaviour or choices.
Schools also considered how staff modelled gender, the language they used and how they managed their classrooms. For example, many teachers realised that they often treated boys and girls differently and in ways that served to reinforce stereotypes. Staff noted improvements in behaviour and attitudes to learning as a result of changes like always encouraging children to work in mixed gender groups.