Gender in the Early Years
20th October 2021
Gender is spoken about widely within society; gender equality is a protected characteristic within the Equality Act (2010) and a key concern. Gender equality concerns itself with the concept of stereotypes and what we deem as favourable for one gender or another when this should be challenged (United Nations Human Rights Office for the High Commissioner, 2021). Gender stereotypes are consistently challenged within modern society to challenge the 'old norm' and further progress for a more balanced societal system. Gender stereotypes can often be seen in our earliest education and children's opportunities within their early learning experiences.
Some concerns can be linked explicitly to gender stereotypes from an early age. One concern of promoting gender stereotypes is that children's confidence can be knocked. Children's self-esteem can become damaged when they want to use a resource, for example, that they are told is too 'girlie' for boys to play with (Ochman, 1996). This can negatively impact their holistic development, hindering the opportunities they are experiencing and their feelings about themselves which can have long-lasting implications for their futures. Likewise, further issues with gender stereotyping can include the 'gender pay gap' and the 'gender gap' in education (Culhane and Bazeley, 2019). The 'gender pay gap' acknowledges the more significant impact that stereotypes can have on the careers women adopt, often seen as care roles that are lower paid than other male-dominated careers such as engineering (Chambers et al., 2018). The 'gender gap' in education recognises that boys tend to underperform compared to girls in education within the UK (The Department of Children, Schools and Families, 2009). Similarly, gender stereotypes consequently lead to adults having poorer outcomes in life, including freedom of expression and the ability to do this constructively (UN Human Rights Office for the High Commissioner, 2021). A lack of educational opportunities due to stigmatised expectations of gender can consequently impact a child's ability to perceive equality and what this should look like, with some of the consequences including sexist views of one gender dominating the other (Ibid.)
Gender stereotypes can be presented unconsciously within a childcare environment. For example, in a recent study, 45% of people recognised they had experienced gender stereotyping up to the age of 7, leading them to behave in ways they were 'expected' to act (Culhane and Bazeley, 2019). However, practitioners can make a more conscious effort to create a more inclusive environment that combats gender stereotypes by being more aware of the language that we use around children. Furthermore, the language we can subconsciously use as practitioners can affect the language that children pick up on and use themselves or their choices. Consequently, these early choices children are supported to make can have more significant implications for their adult lives.
Interestingly, 7 in 10 younger women (18-34s) affected by stereotypes say their career choices were restricted due to the experiences they were encouraged to pursue when they were younger (Culhane and Bazeley, 2019). However, there are many ways that language can be readjusted and realigned to be more inclusive for all children to feel included and reach their full potential without language imposing limitations on their experiences. One strategy to overcome this could be to use gender-free terminology, realigning roles to all genders, such as 'fire fighters' rather than assigning this job title to a male. This ensures that all children become more confident in using this kind of language within their daily lives and will see this as a suitable job for all genders, rather than male dominant.
Recently, there has been a push in society to also get on board with challenging gender stereotypes in early childhood. A campaign called 'Let Toys be Toys' (2021) is a recent initiative that aims to challenge publishing and toy companies to stop limiting or preventing children from playing with a toy or reading a book because they are promoted and aimed at a specific gender. Since the launch of this initiative, 14 retailers have removed the gender branding in their stores that advertise toys suitable for boys or girls, allowing that bias to be removed for children and parents alike. Leading on from this, some other more minor things can be learnt and translated into a childcare setting. Being positive role models for children and encouraging them to think for themselves, pushing expected gender boundaries and 'breaking the mould' will allow children to become unique individuals who can reach their full potential.
Likewise, not providing children with opportunities to truly identify their interests and choices, regardless of their gender, can affect their experiences. The language practitioners use around children can affect their views of different situations, such as 'firemen' or 'housewife', applying the assumption that one gender is more dominant in these roles than the other. Of course, playing in the home corner can offer valuable learning experiences of social norms and expectations for boys and girls, who may both grow up to be parents at some point and need the skills to care for others, rather than this being pushed for girls only. Parents naturally create a "gendered world" for their children by providing specific toys retailed to a gendered audience (Culhane and Bazeley, 2019). Practitioners in a setting have the more comprehensive ability to challenge these restrictions due to having a wider range of resources for all genders they can allow children to engage with. Allowing children to make an active choice in the decision-making process without restrictions allows children to actively engage with a wide range of activities and resources they find personally interesting, allowing them to learn more from the activity (Watts, 2021). Children learn through first-hand experiences and active participation with resources they find attractive; removing gender assumptions from resources or activities allows children to find their interests and pursue these in a creative and fun way to learn from them (Barlow, 2021).
Another strategy to overcome gender stereotypes is to reflect diversity within the learning environment. Having pictures around the setting is an easy way to support language, but it is essential to ensure that these displays, posters and labels are inclusive and not promoting gender stereotypes too. It has been recognised that literature effectively challenges gender norms and undoing some of the perceptions children hold as true (Culhane and Bazeley, 2019). Having an inclusive setting means recognising opportunities to promote diversity and ensure all children feel respected and valued within the setting. One way of reflecting this in the setting could be by having images that represent diversity. For example, having a display of the local environment should recognise the strengths of both male and female workers, showing carers or footballers who are both genders. Offering open-ended resources where children are not guided to one choice is another way of representing and promoting an equal learning environment that minimises gender stereotypes. Likewise, challenging inequalities in children's early experiences are increasingly essential to support and shape children's experiences and outcomes when they are older.
Gender stereotypes have been present within society for many years; nothing that is particularly new and nothing that will disappear overnight. So taking small and practical steps regularly within a childcare setting is an essential role for practitioners. Scaffolding and supporting children to shape their futures appropriately is a skill that will allow children to become themselves. Allowing children to take risks is something that practitioners do daily, using scissors or even pouring their drinks. Encouraging children to explore their full potential and their likes and interests is also an easy win. So removing gender barriers and language can be a straightforward win that will have tremendous potential to promote inclusivity and instil a love of learning for children of all ages and genders.
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Chambers, N., Kashefpakdel, E., Rehill, J. and Percy, C., (2018). Drawing the Future survey. Education for Employers:
Culhane, L. and Bazeley, A., (2019). Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood - A Literature Review. London: Fawcett Society.
Legislation.gov.uk. (2010). Equality Act 2010. [online] Available at: <http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents> [Accessed 11 January 2015].
Let Toys Be Toys, (2021). Challenging gender stereotypes in childhood. [online] Available at: <https://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/> [Accessed 15 August 2021].
Ochman, J., (1996). The effects of nongender-role stereotyped, same-sex role models in storybooks on the self-esteem of children in grade three. Sex Roles, 35(11-12), pp.711-735.
The Department of Children, Schools and Families, (2009). The Gender Agenda Final Report. London: DCSF Publications.
United Nations Human Rights Office for the High Commissioner, (2021). Gender Stereotyping. [online] United Nations Human Rights Office for the High Commissioner. Available at: <https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/women/wrgs/pages/genderstereotypes.aspx> [Accessed 9 August 2021].
Watts, R., (2021). Giving Children Meaningful Choices. [online] Teach Early Years. Available at: <https://www.teachearlyyears.com/learning-and-development/view/giving-children-meaningful-choices> [Accessed 9 August 2021].