There is no doubt gender stereotypes can cause harmful effects among children and adults. And, as awareness of these preconceptions arises early in life, educators are in a unique position to support gender equality and tackle rigid stereotypes that can limit a child’s behaviour and the possibilities they see for themselves.
Restrictive gender stereotypes perpetuate inequality and reinforce views about what a person will like or how they will behave, simply because they belong to a particular group.
When it comes to gender, stereotypes are based on an assumption that all boys will be the same and like the same things, and all girls will be the same and like the same things.
This puts pressure on boys and girls to conform to certain notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity,’ which can limit and restrict young children.
Stereotypes influence the activities children engage in, their interests and skills – and, ultimately, the roles they take in society as adults. Gender stereotypes can sound like, “Girls always prefer...”, “boys don’t do...”, “girls are better at...”, “boys shouldn’t...”, “girls are naturally...”
A gender equality approach in the early years means working with families to help all children achieve and aspire, promoting equality in the skills children learn and ensuring they feel accepted for their individuality.
Sadly, the influence of stereotypes can convince some children that certain options are not open to them when they are older and can impact their career choices.
Allowing children to be whoever they want to be ensures they feel equally comfortable playing football or taking dance classes regardless of their gender.
Research by Professor of Psychology, Judith Blakemore, found that girls toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, whereas boys toys were rated as violent, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous.
The toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, artistic, and other skills were typically categorized as neutral or moderately masculine.
For early childhood educators and parents of young children Prof. Blackmore provides the following advice: “Strongly gender-typed toys might encourage attributes that aren’t ones you actually want to foster.
For girls, this would include a focus on attractiveness and appearance, perhaps leading to a message that this is the most important thing—to look pretty.
For boys, the emphasis on violence and aggression (weapons, fighting, and aggression) might be less than desirable in the long run.”
Interestingly around the turn of the 20th century, toys were rarely marketed to different genders. By the 1940s, manufacturers quickly caught on to the idea that wealthier families would buy a new set of clothing, toys and gadgets if the products were marketed differently for both genders. And so the idea of pink for girls and blue for boys was born.
Eliminating these two colours is not the issue, it is about being conscious of whether you use colour to make a certain area a ‘gender’ section, and whether that stops children from another gender feeling welcomed there.
Children like to play with a whole host of different types of toys and should have the freedom to choose their own interest. This requires supporting all children to be themselves, to encourage climbing, playing with toy cars or dolls and prams no matter what their gender, especially as dolls and prams can teach all children skills like being nurturing, kind, caring, and perhaps a good parent.
Challenging limiting stereotypes in early years settings means:
- Focusing on gender issues in training and professional development
- Recruiting men and women to work in settings
- Understanding the influence of families on children’s constructions of gender
- Observing how children demonstrate what they know about men and women – and girls and boys – in their gendered play
- Remaining aware of the potentially limiting impact of gendered play on learning.
Ideas to promote gender equality in the early years
Here are five ideas that tackle gender stereotypes to create gender equality:
1. Unexpected job roles:
Role-playing certain jobs can sometimes have connections to certain genders within wider society. A great way to expose children to unexpected job roles is to have boys be nurses, full-time fathers or dancers while girls are mechanics astronauts and builders. It’s crucial for children to develop their interests so they can feel like nothing is out of their reach.
2. Read non-traditional stories
Traditional ‘damsel in distress’ stories like Cinderella don’t reflect modern gender roles, and it’s time to look for some alternatives. Princess Smartypants, The Paper Bag Princess or Zog are great stories about strong princesses who don’t fit the typical mould. Movies like Frozen and Brave are great for little ones, while Charlie and Lola or Dora the Explorer also have strong and confident female lead characters.
3. Challenge behaviour
Having discussions when children bring up problematic statements is essential to having equality in the early years. This includes using gender as an insult, like telling someone they ‘throw like a girl’ or putting down other children because of their choice of clothing or toy.
This is a great chance for a discussion! Ask them why they think that way. What’s wrong with that toy choice? Try to get deeper into why your children feel that way and it can help them to develop critical thoughts of their own. It will help guide them towards seeing things more equally.
4. Model the right way
Modelling your own behaviour to stop enforcing gender stereotypes is another way that you can change what you’re doing. Having male practitioners around to offer a more diverse teaching environment is a great way of doing this, but they are famously difficult to find.
So consider things like the roles you take on when getting involved in role-play. If you are female, take on the role of a mechanic or firefighter. Be aware of how you talk about gender yourself and with other staff too.
5. Flexible pretend play
A great way of integrating boys and girls into the same role-play is to do away with traditional role-play areas altogether. How about a fish and chip shop, a pet shop, a cafe? Come up with ideas that have no obvious gender preferences.
Pretend play like this is a great opportunity to understand what ideas children have about gender. Do they play families, or pretend to be pirates? What makes them choose those? Remember you’re not telling them anything is wrong you’re just using it as a discussion point to understand why they have certain ideas about what ‘boys do’ and ‘girls do’.
References and further resources:
Zero Tolerance: Talking Gender in the Early Years
Teach Early Years: Gender Stereotyping in the Early Years