Through decades of research, it has become clear that stereotypes play a significant role in how children view themselves and their abilities. This can cap their ambitions and affect their wellbeing. At Gender Action, we believe no child should be limited by stereotypes.
Gender Action is a new award programme grounded in evidence that challenges gender stereotypes across educational settings, and we strongly believe early years practitioners and educators play a vital role in challenging gender stereotypes.
Gender stereotypes are everywhere – from casual conversations to newspaper headlines, advertisements to birthday cards. It’s hard to escape them.
Research has shown that for children, acceptance of stereotypes can lead to lower well-being and contribute to bullying and harassment for those who do not conform to them.
Stereotypes have also been found to be a key factor in children’s choices and aspirations, affecting the subjects they choose and the careers they aspire to.
With stereotypes shaping children’s careers ambitions by age 7 and some research showing that basic stereotypes develop in children as young as 2, challenging gender stereotypes needs to start as early as possible. Which is why, unlike other programmes that may look at stereotypes in later years, the Gender Action programme currently works with nurseries all the way through to colleges – after 2019 we are looking to expand into childminder settings and pre-schools.
So what can be done in early years to challenge gender stereotypes?
We do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach, so an important step is to assess your setting as it currently is, and then see where improvements can be made. To effectively challenge gender stereotypes it is important to engage with them across the whole setting which is why at Gender Action we have broken our award into six focus areas. Below are some examples of approaches that can be used in early years settings, across these areas.
Stereotypes can be reinforced by unconscious bias – automatic judgements that often occur without us noticing. These biases develop through a combination of our personal experiences and our cultural upbringing.
Glyn Hawke, an early years teacher at Rye Oak Primary School, described the process he and his colleagues went through as revelatory, when they started to openly discuss the received wisdom they had learnt regarding boys and girls. Even if they outwardly rejected some of these stereotypes, speaking about them out loud helped them consciously ensure they weren’t affecting how they interacted with the children in their care.
Ensuring that we as adults are checking our own biases, helps us stop reinforcing stereotypes with the young people we work with. Incorporating unconscious bias training as part of CPD for staff can help shine a light on these issues, and lets us work actively against them.
Curriculum and learning
Even in a child-led setting, it is important that all children experience all areas of the curriculum. Some children may feel excluded from certain types of play or particular toys and can often be found to police themselves and others. Making sure staff feel able to intervene and talk to the children about not excluding others or themselves, is an important step in stopping stereotypes.
Observations made in your setting can also be used to start group discussions – if the girls tend to dominate the dressing up area, you could ask all the children about why they think this is or if they want anything to change. Exploring gender stereotypes through stories is also a good way to allow children to voice their opinions about issues they disagree with.
Progression, choices and jobs
Although choosing careers may seem far on the horizon for children in early years settings, children’s ideas of appropriate and inappropriate jobs form at a young age.
Haimo Primary School - one of our supporter schools
Ideas of ‘men’s jobs’ and ‘women’s jobs’ can be internalised by young children which can lead to them imposing limitations on themselves. These stereotypes can come from books and media, family experience and even from how jobs are distributed between male and female staff in your setting.
Making sure that through stories and play that children are aware that there are no such thing as ‘men’s jobs’ and ‘women’s jobs’ can help children keep their options open.
Internal and external communications
Just as the gendered language we use with children can reinforce gender bias, so too can our wider use of language and imagery in leaflets, websites, displays and beyond. This can be as simple as referring to ‘mums’ rather than ‘parents and carers’, or emphasising ‘boys and girls’ rather than just children.
Auditing the materials you produce is a useful way of seeing if there are any issues. You could also develop a language toolkit with your staff for phrases to use and not to use to ensure consistency of approach.
Engagement with parents, carers and the wider community
Including parents and carers in your work to challenge gender stereotypes is an important step, as the more people involved, the greater the impact you will have. It also helps provide consistency of messaging from the early years setting to the home and back again. Wider engagement could involve extending CPD to interested parents and carers, providing updates on your work in newsletters and sharing your knowledge on why stereotypes can be harmful.
Challenging gender stereotypes in early years settings puts children in a stronger position to challenge sexism and inequalities as they grow up. To learn more about the Gender Action programme and how you could get your setting involved please visit www.genderaction.co.uk. As well as learning more about the programme, you can find more research and resources in our online library and see which nurseries and schools are already Supporters in your area.
For 2019, our programme is funded by the Mayor of London, so whilst all schools and nurseries in the UK can become Supporters, only London schools can progress to the next stages. For childminders, all resources and structure for development can be used but we are not able to accredit at this time. However, if you are a childminder and interested in doing this accreditation, please do register your interest as we are looking to expand this after the 2019 rollout.
About the author
Georgina Phillips is the Recruitment & Relationships Officer for Gender Action, a new award programme designed to challenge gender stereotypes. The programme is run by a consortium of experts from the Institute of Physics, King's College London, UCL Institute of Education and the University Council of Modern Languages. The 2019 programme is funded by the Mayor of London for a rollout across the capital. To find out more about the programme, visit our www.genderaction.co.uk, follow us on Twitter @_Gender_Action or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.