As early years professionals, you all know that what happens in the first few years of a child’s life are absolutely crucial to how they develop.
That goes for battling gender stereotypes too.
There is no doubt that stereotypes can be incredibly harmful. They help to fuel inequality long into adulthood and can have a harmful effect on both girls and boys.
But what does a gender equal setting exactly look like? Well, it all comes down to giving children the freedom to choose.
The freedom to choose
A truly gender-equal environment is not about making children do stuff that they don’t want to. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s about giving children the freedom to choose their own interests.
It doesn’t mean that you should stop boys playing football, and it doesn’t mean girls have to stop dressing up as princesses. What it does mean is that you should take active steps to tackle gender stereotypes to ensure no child feels like certain options are closed off to them.
The head of the much acclaimed Bourdarias Nursery, located in the suburbs of Paris, puts it very nicely indeed. “Simply, we show the young girls that they can play with the toy cars, make a noise, shout and climb. Boys wanting to play with dolls are encouraged too.”
You’re not forcing dolls on boys or cars on girls. You’re just making sure that they are able to make that choice themselves.
Prevent and British Values
Gender equality also matters because it is a key part of the British Values. The British Values are a part of the Prevent Strategy, which gives statutory guidance for early years settings on how to prevent radicalisation. As part of this, they encourage nurseries to consider gender and how they might be enforcing stereotypes.
This guidance from Foundation Years mentions two clear parts of this guidance. That nurseries need to ensure they are not failing to challenge stereotypes, and that they are not routinely separating boys and girls. This means that consciously thinking about gender stereotyping is a part of your statutory duty.
Ideas to promote gender equality
Now that you know why it matters to think about challenging gender stereotypes in your setting, here are some ideas on how to go about doing just that.
1. Unexpected job roles
For many children, a huge part of their play centres on role-playing certain jobs. It’s crucial for children to develop their interests and they should all be made to feel like nothing is out of their reach.
Yet, many jobs have connections to certain genders within wider society. We see this in the stories we read, the tv we see, and the people we meet.
A great way to challenge this is by exposing children to unexpected job roles. Male dancers, nurses and full-time fathers. Female mechanics, astronauts and builders. You could inspire a child to change the whole way they view their future.
Not convinced? This video might change your mind.
2. Watch your ‘pet’ names
Sweetie, sweetheart and buttercup. Lads, chaps, and fellas. Is it obvious who we’re talking about?
The problem with these terms and others is that they tend to group children easily by gender, which reinforces segregation between genders. Instead, if you’re using these terms, make sure you apply them to everyone equally. If not, try ‘everyone’ ‘friends’ or other more inclusive names.
Just by paying attention to how you’re using these words, you might get a new perspective on the subtle ways that you separate children without noticing.
3. ‘Boys don’t’ ‘Girls don’t’
Boys don’t cry. Girls don’t fight. Girls don’t get cross.
These kind of blanket statements are wrong and harmful. In fact, these specific statements specifically relate to two big problems of inequality, namely that boys and men are not good at expressing their emotions, and that girls and women struggle with self-confidence.
Try to stop using blanket statements like this, and watch out for others doing the same.
4. Read non-traditional stories
Another great way to challenge existing gender stereotypes that are enforced elsewhere in society is in the stories that you tell.
Traditional ‘damsel in distress’ stories like Cinderella don’t reflect modern gender roles, and it’s time to look for some alternatives. Princess Smartypants and The Paper Bag Princess are both great additions to a bookshelf, telling stories about strong princesses who don’t fit the typical mould.
Frozen and Brave are great films for little ones, while Charlie and Lola or Dora the Explorer also have strong female lead characters who are confident and brave.
5. What they do, not how they look
One way in which we tend to stereotype girls in particular, is to talk about how they look.
This can contribute to a society of young women who are obsessed with how they look and have low self-esteem. It can also make them use their looks as the only way that they derive a sense of self-worth.
Empowering young children of all genders is super important. But instead of making them feel good by telling them ‘their hair looks nice’, try focusing on their skills and what they achieve instead.
6. Challenge behaviour
Having discussions when children bring up problematic statements is also 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.
7. Mix up your areas
For a whole variety of reasons, children will tend to gravitate towards the so-called ‘usual’ activities for their gender.
One way to make sure that children are given the opportunity to seek out new areas of interest is by mixing up the areas in different ways. Alistair Bryce-Clegg does a great job of explaining gender schemas and play areas, and it’s worth considering when you plan your area.
In essence, make sure that your crucial areas like book corner and circle time area are not obviously gendered. On top of that, consider moving more traditional gender toys into non-traditional gender areas.
Put dolls amongst the construction area, or ‘boys toys’ in the home corner. Encourage children to explore new things alongside the things that make them feel more comfortable.
8. 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.
Outside of this, 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. Watch how you talk about gender yourself and with other staff too.
9. Talking distance
In general, people tend to talk to boys from a further distance and talk to girls from much closer quarters. This is one of the many ways that we treat the genders differently, and it relates to the idea that we see girls as more nurturing and boys as more boisterous.
Of course, children will appreciate and respond to different communication styles. Just make sure that you have the right style based on what works for that child, not based on their gender.
10. Pink and blue
Pink for girls. Blue for boys. It’s such a standard choice, that many people do it without thinking.
You don’t have to get rid of these colours altogether. Just be conscious of whether you are using colour to make a certain area a ‘gender’ section, and whether that is stopping children from another gender feeling welcomed there.
It’s also another way that people subconsciously segregate boys and girls. If you do want to change, then red, purple, and orange all seem to be colours that both boys and girls are drawn to.
11. Try unusual areas
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? Think about coming up with ideas that have no obvious gender preferences.
Pretend play like this is a great chance 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’.
This article by Professor Cathy Brown is a brilliant piece about reconsidering the areas in your nursery and how they’re used.
12. Watch each other
To finish off the article, we’ve got a great experiment for you to try.
Assign each member of staff a colleague to casually observe for a week. Get them to focus on one specific question. Do they treat boys and girls differently?
This is not about calling anyone out. When you do this kind of experiment, people are usually shocked to find things out about themselves. It’s the perfect way to understand how we enforce gender stereotypes without even noticing, and can be a great platform for changing attitudes.
Want to find out more? Here’s some extra stuff to get your teeth into.
- Inclusion and Equality from Pre-school Learning Alliance – Pre-school Learning Alliance have a great range of cheap resources to learn more about inclusion and equality in the Early Years.
- Just Like A Child from Zero Tolerance – This guide explains the problems with gender inequality in the early years in a little more depth, alongside plenty of ideas to think about your practice more consciously.
- No More Boys and Girls from the BBC – It’s not available on iPlayer right now, but this series has changed a lot of people’s views about gender in early education. Watch out for it coming back online and in the meantime check out this article about it.
The Complete (and free) SEN Guide
Interested in more? Download the full guide to preparing an inclusive environment for every SEN child.