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Starting the conversation: Gender stereotypes in early childhood

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

My story of raising boys and the impact of gender stereotypes.


by a Perth mum of two


‘I have boys, we tend to think of girls being the ones that will suffer from sexism, the gender pay gap and limited career options, so why am I concerned about gender stereotyping for my boys?’


My two young sons are what might be known as ‘typical boys’, they are boisterous and energetic, they love cars (my oldest son’s first word was ‘wheels’) and superheroes, playing with guns, wearing camo, getting mucky and breaking things! They are also, I am proud to say, compassionate, kind and enjoy cooking (stereotypically female traits and activities), but I sometimes wonder how they turned out so boyish. My husband and I have tried to give them a variety of toys to play with; we share a lot of the domestic chores and don’t conform to gender stereotypes with how we expect them to act and behave based on their biological sex.


But, young children learn from the world around them and build up an understanding on when gender matters, based on what they see and experience. Despite mine and my husband’s best efforts, we undoubtedly have unconscious biases that will have an impact. I regularly refer to ‘the boys’ when talking about my children, or ‘the girls’ when talking about my nieces; my mum always called my brother ‘little man’ and now does the same with my children, and I do the same, I forget, it just comes out. These small choices that we make of what language we use, what assumptions we make about colours, like pink and blue, and our how we act, shape our children’s understanding of the differences between genders.

Some might ask what is wrong with recognising children’s genders, everyone is born with a gender, even if they choose to change it in later life. Also, I have boys, we tend to think of girls being the ones that will suffer from sexism, the gender pay gap and limited career options, so why am I concerned about gender stereotyping for my boys? The problem is, gender stereotyping reinforces our social expectations of what we associate with how girls and boys should behave and act. In fact, challenging these stereotypes has benefits for the economy, society and us as individuals.


In December 2020, the Fawcett Society published ‘Unlimited potential: Report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood’ which highlighted that stereotypes are deeply embedded in society and result in limitations being placed on both genders from an early age. These include, fewer girls and women studying and having careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects; boys developing lower reading skills; self esteem issues in both genders caused by body image or expectations of and/or failure to demonstrate ‘manly’ behaviours and actions. This has led to a mental health crisis, particularly among young people, including eating disorders, suicide attempts and increasing male suicide rates, especially among those aged under 45. There is also evidence that challenging gender stereotypes can reduce violence, abuse and harassment against women and girls and other or intersecting discriminated against groups.


Alongside ingrained habits learned in the home, it is a major challenge to try to invert what children are absorbing during their experiences out of the home, in our case, nursery and school. I want to start off by saying that I don’t believe that any school or nursery wants to deliberately reinforce gender stereotypes, or limit the potential of the children that go there; but that this is often unconscious and as a result of social norms that are embedded in all of us and very difficult to recognise or even overcome. Including for me. What follows are some examples that illustrate how gender stereotyping has occurred in my children’s lives.


Our nursery this year happily moved beyond delivering gendered Christmas presents from Santa, with my son’s usual cars and trucks being replaced with a card game, which would have been suitable for any child. He was just as delighted and has played with it more than he did with any of the trucks he received in previous years. Of course, in previous years he was also delighted with the cars and trucks and the girls we know were delighted with their dolls in pink packaging, so what is the problem? Research has shown that the toys children are given reflect what our expectations are of them when they grow up. By giving girls dolls we are saying to them we expect them to practice for their roles as carers when they grow up and we expect boys to be manly and drive cars and trucks and leave the caring to the women. This is why it’s important for all genders to have equal access to different sorts of toys and for them to be in an environment where they feel comfortable to play with any of the toys they might prefer, practicing for a variety of adult roles.


Gender differences are also reinforced in my children’s lives through the boys’ line and girls’ line outside school in the morning; choices of clothing, including school uniforms, with girls in dresses and pink or purple coats and bags and boys in trousers or shorts and a sea of camo and blue. Gendered learning resources, like out of date school books with stereotyped characters of what mums, dads, girls and boys should be doing and look like or a wall display to learn parts of the body depicting a boy in blue shorts with short hair and a girl with long blonde hair with flowery pink leggings, despite identical body part labels on each; making gendered differences totally unnecessary and only reinforcing expectations of how children ‘should’ look.


Regular ‘Princess and Superhero’ dress up days are a highlight in my children’s calendar. My son loves to join in and be ‘the same’ as his peers. His friends influence most of his choices in life, so he can be part of the gang and feel included. His friends love superheroes, so he does too; he is delighted to dress up as Batman or wear his Batman t-shirt, even though he has never seen Batman on TV or in a comic book. This is the same experience for many girls we know, who want to wear sparkly, pink princess dresses, like their friends. If there are no rules about who dresses how, then what is the problem? Boys are welcome to dress as princesses and girls as superheroes. First of all, it would be a very brave child that would dress against expectations, no matter how much support is provided by adults, and it is unlikely that parents would support that choice as the unlimited potential report states that 61% of parents are worried about their sons being bullied if they behave differently from the norm. Secondly, consider superheroes, how many female superheroes are there? What are the characteristics of superheroes and what do superheroes look like and wear? Superheroes are generally male (and largely white, straight and able bodied), brave, strong and ready to fight for justice. In emulating superheroes our children are reinforcing harmful stereotypes of body image and masculinity.


The above presents just a few examples of how gender stereotypes have been reinforced in my children’s lives, albeit most likely unintentionally. But do any of these things really affect our children? What evidence can I find in my children? Comments like ‘I don’t want to cry mummy, I want to be a brave boy’, ‘Girls don’t like lego’ and ‘I don’t like pink’. And comments from their female friends like ‘I will never be able to cycle as fast as a boy’.


So, now I’m aware of the impacts that these behaviours and norms are having, as well as trying to change our own behaviour as parents, I think we need to start the conversation with early years and education practitioners to try and tackle this problem outside the home. Firstly, to recognise how gender stereotypes are being imposed on our children, secondly, to understand what impact this is having on our children and thirdly, to make small changes to subvert this stereotyping. In fact, I am not alone, the Fawcett Society report says that ‘80% of parents agree that they want to see their child’s school or nursery treat boys and girls the same, with the same expectations and opportunities.’

Carefully selected books can help challenge stereotypes.

When we realise what we do to reinforce stereotypes, without giving it a second thought, we can see how easy it is to change the norm. We can stop using gendered language;

we can mix up how we allocate roles in the

school play or nativity; we can avoid separating boys and girls for any reason in school/nursery and encourage them to play with a wide range of toys; we can avoid gendered clothing, by choosing different colours or avoiding stereotyped images or slogans and standardising school uniforms across the genders. We can also try to give them access to books with a diverse range of main characters.


In summary, although I believe there should be equality for everyone, I particularly want to clarify why this is important to me as a mother of boys.


Firstly, and most importantly to me, I want to protect my boys from the growing mental health crisis, particularly among young men, I want to encourage them to be able to talk about their emotions and support their wellbeing and I want my nieces to grow up with the same opportunities as my boys and not feel they are limited to certain jobs.


Secondly, I want to bring up my children to respect women, to treat everyone as equals and to have healthy and rewarding relationships with other people, including caring for any future family they may have. Not only for their own happiness and wellbeing, but also to enable them to support change for the next generation and reduce some of the challenges that they face.


Finally, the world is facing a climate crisis, that future generations will increasingly suffer from, including my own children. I am passionate about securing a sustainable future and I do not believe that is possible without addressing inequality. This is a huge task, but where better to start than in our community.


To join the conversation about gender stereotying and young children, check out Gender Equality Perth's Equal Parenting Discussion Group, running June-Nov 2021.


Further reading

Fawcett Society, Unlimited potential: Report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood, December 2020. https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=17fb0c11-f904-469c-a62e-173583d441c8

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