Why we must challenge gender stereotypes in schools

By Mark Jennett for the NUT’s Breaking the Mould project

Stereotypes are invidious things. They underpin prejudice and discrimination and place constraints on people’s lives.

“They have aisles for boys and girls so boys don’t get the wrong things”

As the 9 year old child above expresses so eloquently, they often prevent us from doing things we want to do – or oblige us to make choices that, without the pressure to conform, we might not make.

Arguably, ‘traditional’ gender stereotypes are both the most pervasive and the least acknowledged.

From birth, society works to confine behaviour within rigid lines – children are taught which colours, toys, games and books are for boys and which for girls.

Choices about what they will play with or wear are made for younger children and, by the time they come to make their own, they have already learnt what is expected of them and will often behave accordingly.

How it affects children

The evidence for how gender stereotypes impact children is stark and unequivocal.

  • Although some girls achieve better test scores than boys – and are more likely to go on to higher education – this does not translate into equality at home, at work or in society in general.
  • The gender pay gap remains stubbornly hard to shift and women continue to be under-represented in sectors such as science, engineering and technology. Efforts to recruit men into careers such as teaching and nursing continue to enjoy limited success.
  • The permanent exclusion rate for boys is four times that for girls and more boys enter the youth offending system than girls – some boys feel that learning is not seen as ‘masculine’.
  • Primary age girls are known to associate being slim and conventionally attractive with social and economic success. Girls as young as twelve feel under pressure to be sexually available – and boys feel similarly pressured into making such demands on girls.
  • Sexual bullying and bullying in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity remain widespread and are closely linked to ideas of how women and men – and boys and girls – are expected to look and behave.

Use the classroom

In 2006, the Women and Work Commission identified the need to challenge gender stereotypes in education and ensure that children’s aspirations are not limited by traditional ideas about what girls and boys can do.

Challenging gender stereotypes is likely to have widely beneficial effects in terms of improving educational and life outcomes for both genders, helping young people and adults to have respectful relationships and improving behaviour in our classrooms. Indeed, a significant body of research already exists to support this argument.

Research has demonstrated how classroom discussions about gender constructions and using literature to deconstruct stereotypes can have a significant impact on educational engagement and learning.

Furthermore, continuing inequalities in the workplace and unequal roles within families can be traced back to stereotypes about expected behaviour and attitudes which are learned by children when they are of primary school age, and even younger.

But aren’t boys and girls different?

As a society, we regularly seem to confuse gender with sex.

Many of the differences that exist between men and women (such as physical strength and appearance) are linked to biology – and in our highly mechanised world, many of these are much less significant than they used to be.

In reality, there are very few things men and women cannot do equally well.

Nobody involved in the Breaking the Mould project was attempting to deny that there are some inherent differences between girls and boys but only to question why we often exaggerate those that do exist – and sometimes even invent others.

It’s everywhere children look

Many children’s books and TV programmes still portray a world in which men are Fireman Sam and Postman Pat and women are either mothers or Princesses.

More than ever, toys and games are marketed as being ‘for’ one gender or the other – dolls and ovens are for girls and trucks and construction toys are for boys.

Even things like colouring books are promoted as being for one gender or the other and feature completely different content. We all know that men can cook and women can drive – and yet we seem determined to keep these facts from our children.

Given this context, it was hardly surprising that many of the teachers engaged in the project encountered very stereotypical views about what constituted ‘women’s or men’s jobs’.

Despite some recent advances in children’s books and films, the ‘Princess’ culture  is still widely promoted – in which young girls are encouraged to prize physical appearance and likeability over intellectual ability and to see social status as closely linked to being in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex.

Many toys aimed at boys encourage the idea that masculinity is about action – and coming out on top whatever the cost. Boys in fiction are much less likely to be seen displaying empathy or nurturing skills – abilities that are generally assigned to female characters.

These expectations also play a significant part in generating the negative outcomes outlined above for children of both sexes. They are, in large part, a result of the expectations placed on girls and boys and the roles society chooses to assign them – and we could change these expectations.

What teachers can do

One way to bring about change is to educate children for a world in which such stereotypes need not govern our behaviour and people are free to pursue the lives they want without feeling that certain things are expected of them – or opportunities denied them – because of either their biological sex or gender expression. As one teacher explained:

“We should be preparing children for the future we hope they will live in – a diverse, non-sexist one. We challenge racism by breaking down stereotypes but we don’t do this anything like as effectively with gender.

Why aren’t we preparing them for a world in which women don’t want to have children or men want to stay at home and care for them? If we refer to these possibilities at all, it is very much in passing.

How many households are there already where the woman is the higher earner – and yet we are not educating them for this very real world.”

Many referred to the need to help children to make choices that suit them and meet their needs.

“They need to leave at 11 with built in resilience. Sometimes it is hard to make the choice to resist stereotypes.

We can try and give children that opportunity at school but outside they will be under pressure not to make those unconventional choices.

On the one hand, it is good to promote the idea of school as a magic place where you can be free and safe to explore identity without the fear of prejudice but we need to talk to children about the reality of the pressures they will face – we need to build their confidence levels, their emotional resilience.

Girls in particular need to learn the value of risk taking and also the importance of being assertive and asking for what you do – and don’t – want.”

This article was written for the National Union of Teachers’ Breaking the Mould project by Mark Jennett, trainer, consultant and writer specializing in work around equality and diversity.

Breaking the Mould  looks into how children’s ambitions are limited by gender stereotypes in schools.  Thanks to Mark and to the NUT for their kind permission in letting us feature their work.

2 Comments

  1. “Nobody involved in the Breaking the Mould project was attempting to deny that there are some inherent differences between girls and boys but only to question why we often exaggerate those that do exist – and sometimes even invent others.”
    Yes – I like this way of putting it.

  2. Lena Gerber

    I think there is more difference between some girls and some other girls, some boys and some other boys, than there is generally between girls and boys. This applies to women and men as well. I think you are very right in saying that people often confuse gender with sex, but sex is also not a guarantee for difference. I know women with more physical strength than some men for instance. There is also something called intersex… Just saying…

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