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Challenging gender stereotypes in the Early Years

As a “Scots lass” I was proud when our country became the first devolved nation to directly incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law.  Rights are about more than being safe from harm and discrimination – they are about freedom, respect and the ability to make choices.  The UNCRC demands that “children, including the very youngest children, be respected as persons in their own right. Young children should be recognised as active members of families, communities and societies, with their own concerns, interests and points of view.” (UNCRC General Comment No 7).  All children are unique, and that uniqueness should be nurtured and celebrated by the adults around them.

That’s why I have come to see that the work that I have been involved in around gender stereotyping is very much a matter of children’s rights.  I don’t think anyone would disagree that all children should have the freedom to interact with the world, to dream dreams, and to imagine a future where they can be whatever they want to be and do whatever they want to do.  Yet I believe that outdated gender stereotypes are still getting in the way.

Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes limit our children in many ways, sending messages about what is appropriate or not appropriate for boys and for girls.  They teach children that they ought to fit into one of two boxes which determine so much about what they can expect out of life.  The rules around these “gender boxes” are taught from birth. Through the prism of pink and blue, the actions and reactions of those around us, and through the opportunities we are given, we learn what’s expected of us.

Studies show that adults act differently around very young infants depending on their sex.  Boys are seen as stronger and more capable, we tolerate and encourage their risk taking, we expect them to be sporty, and may even teach them to be tougher by taking slightly longer to respond when they cry.  We speak to baby girls more, especially about emotions and we get concerned when they are too loud or boisterous.  Through our words, tone of voice and facial expressions we encourage or discourage behaviour in children to fit these gendered norms – usually unconsciously.  

In 2019 Hopster looked at representation across mainstream children’s television in the UK and found gender stereotypes alive and well.  Dominant male characters, a lack of strong females, few examples of caring boys or courageous girls – that sort of thing. They found a lack of disabled, LGBT+, working class and ethnically and racially diverse characters. Representation matters – all children have the right to see people who look like them in the world around them.   The Let Toys Be Toys campaign has done stellar work in demonstrating how the toy industry produces and markets specific toys to boys and girls in ways which reinforce stereotypical gender ideals. And don’t even get me started on the clothing industry…

I could list example after example showing the ways in which children are exposed to and learn from these gender stereotypes. How these stereotypes mean that little boys learn from a young age to hide their emotions, and how young girls learn that much of their value in society is placed on how they look.  The shared characteristics, behaviours and interests we think we see in groups of girls and groups of boys may be more to do with this gendered socialisation than as a result of innate biological differences, which remain slight right up till puberty.  




The Vital Role of Early Years Settings

By the time they reach you in early years settings many of these ideas about gender roles will have taken root in children’s minds.  However, I am convinced that early years settings can play a vital role in challenging these ideas, not only through minimising stereotypes in our settings, but by providing a new narrative which can inspire and empower children.  So, what advice would I give to anyone who wants to make changes to their practice?

Find Your Why?:  Change isn’t easy, particularly when it’s tied up in the way we’ve been taught to understand the world, or goes against the way “things have always been done”.  If we find a motivation for making these changes, something we can remind ourselves of when we are finding it hard, then it can really help.  For me, I can already see how my own children are being limited by these stereotypes.  I have a passion for preventing suicide and can see how ideas about strong self-sufficient boys and men are feeding into the increased suicide rate amongst men.  As a woman who has never felt comfortable in her own skin, I can see how pressures to conform to stereotypical body and beauty ideals have impacted on me and I don’t want this for my children (or any children!).  The impacts of gender stereotypes are wide and affect us all. I believe that when people understand this, and find a reason that resonates with them, then they are usually on board.  Use your passion to drive your action.

Find your allies: As individuals we can make an impact – I’ll always believe this – but together we can do much more.  I have found a network of like-minded people who just “get it”, who I can turn to for advice and support. Going it alone is never easy, so my advice would be to rally others to your cause.  Perhaps you could look to organise some whole staff training which might help others in the team to find their why?

Feed your knowledge: Even though I’ve been doing this stuff for quite some time, I am learning every day and I continue to participate in CPD around related topics whenever I can.  As a result, my thoughts and opinions have evolved, and we have refined our approach.  For example, we have moved away from a gender neutral approach to one rooted in gender equity.  I believe that as long as we live in a world full of gender stereotypes we need to recognise and address the different impacts these will have on specific groups of children – for example boys and girls are subjected to quite different messages and expectations. Gender neutral approaches may not always allow us to provide the counter balance which I believe is needed to address these.  So, look out for courses, webinars or events and keep learning.  Get on Twitter and follow some of the brilliant organisations who are regularly sharing articles and opinion pieces on this topic.

Small Changes, Big Impact: I know from experience that early years staff are already doing loads of brilliant equality focused work.  We’ve always sought to recognise and celebrate this, but then provide inspiration and tools to take things even further. This is not about ripping things up and starting again – but about making small tweaks and changes which can have a big impact. It might be about buying in resources which show a variety of characters undertaking stereotype busting activities, or changing to gender neutral Christmas gifts or changing how you greet the children as they arrive at nursery each day. Every little helps.

Look Across Your Setting: Taking a look at all aspects of your setting through a gender lens and making changes where you see room for improvement can really help.  Take time to reflect on your environment, toys, books and resources, displays, policies, interactions with children and parents, the language you use, the activities you run. While small changes can have a big impact – lots of small changes can have even more!




What We Permit We Promote: I believe that we need to challenge and call out gender stereotypes and sexist language whenever we come across it.  This isn’t always easy, but it’s important if we are going to change the culture around this stuff. It is clear that staff in these settings have brilliant relationships with parents and children, which places you in an ideal position to gently challenge and influence in non-confrontational ways.  For example, one staff member told us that when one dad showed some discomfort about his son playing with a doll and pushchair she asked him how he was planning on getting his son home that night. Simple!

I believe that if we all play our part, if we start to make these changes, then we can make a big difference.  We can ensure that gender stereotypes are minimised in our settings and challenge these stereotypes when we come across them.  Children have the right to be free of these expectations, and as educators we have a duty (as per Article 29 of the UNCRC) to ensure that the education we provide develops every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full. Reducing gender stereotypes is one small way we can do this. Let’s make sure the potential in our children is limitless.

Susie Heywood
Susie Heywood and co-founder Barbara Adzajlic established Gender Friendly Scotland, which is an organisation committed to promoting good practice around gender stereotyping and gender equality in the early years and beyond. Susie believes that a “whole nursery approach” to gender stereotyping, which aims to ensure that children and staff in early years settings are not in any way limited because of their gender, can help to compensate for the many messages that society sends to us about what is expected of us. Gender Friendly Scotland aims to support anyone who comes into contact with children in the early years to ensure that their practice is fully inclusive and “gender friendly”.

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