Ten ways to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom

Stereotyped ideas about what’s suitable for boys or girls can limit children’s opportunities to learn and develop. Here are ten things teachers can do to help create an environment which encourages children to think of themselves as individuals, rather than editing their choices through a gender filter.

See our schools pages for lesson plans for different age groups, more information on why stereotypes matter in school and links to other useful resources.

Girl and boy in school uniform playing with toy cars.

1/ Create a safe space

School should be a safe environment to learn and explore – you can help children by affirming unconventional choices, reassuring them that it’s OK to be different and encouraging a culture of acceptance.

“Boys [in Reception] sometimes want to wear the Princess dresses. This bothers one or two of the staff and sometimes parents object. One boy wanted to wear the Mummy Bear outfit, an apron, and mum questioned this. We encourage staff to support the children’s choices – our role is to accept what comes out of the role play.” Teacher

2/ Challenge stereotypes when you hear them

‘Why can’t a boy wear pink? My Dad does.’ ‘Why can’t a girl like football? My wife plays for our local women’s team.’ Children are often very keen to ‘police’ one another and make sure their peers follow the gender ‘rules’ they’ve learned. You can set the example by questioning them, and offering counter-examples from your own experience.

3/ Talk about stereotypes

The Let Toys Be Toys lesson plan activities for Reception/ Year 1, lower KS2, upper KS2 and KS3/lower secondary are designed to help pupils start to question stereotypes about boys and girls, and we’ve pulled together links to more resources and ideas.

4/ Provide a range of role models

Give children real-life examples that counter stereotypes, both in your own activities, and in topic work and external visitors.

“My daughter pointed out to me recently that all the science groups in her Y2 class are named after men. And politicians bemoan the lack of women in science without seeing any connection!” Caren

“When I heard the new topic was ‘superheroes’ I was concerned this would be full of aggressive beefcakes ‘to get the boys interested’, but it was great. The staff made sure to include female heroes, and they looked at of different sorts of ‘heroism’ – eg a nurse, plumber.” Jane, Cardiff

“I tell the kids that I’m the person who cooks in our house. I didn’t think of this as breaking down stereotypes until now.” Teacher

“Where possible we also try to get visitors who challenge stereotypes so we always ask if we can have a female firefighter or police officer or a male nurse… We’re also trying to get some of our male staff to help with things like knitting club (they’re willing but need to learn the basics!) and more women playing football.” Teacher

5/ Make the most of books

Take a look at the stories and factual books in your classroom. Are there examples of working women, caring fathers, active girls and creative boys? Are all the animals in the stories male?

Carefully chosen books can be very helpful in challenging stereotypes – the It’s Child’s Play report from the NUT’s Breaking the Mould project has suggestions of books with additional notes and ideas for discussion. Inclusive book retailer Letterbox Library has a great selection, including themed book packs for schools and nurseries.

Book display, including titles by Michael Morpurgo, labelled as 'Boy Books'

Photo taken in a UK primary school library – credit nobodysblog.com

“We picked William’s Doll on purpose partly because the father is in charge at home [William’s mother is not mentioned in the story – only his Grandmother]. But we also wanted the boys to see that they can make their own choices – and to try and stop the other boys telling each other what they should be doing.” Teacher

Labelling a bookshelf ‘Boys’ Books’ might seem like a good way to encourage reluctant boy readers, but this can be counterproductive, reminding boys of the stereotype that they are supposedly less interested in reading, and encouraging the idea that only certain interests are allowed.

6/ Look at who uses which spaces and equipment

Do certain areas get dominated by certain groups, or by one gender or the other? Are there changes or movements you could make to encourage children to feel equally free to use the home corner, the reading corner, the bikes, the Lego…

“The colour of things is very significant – often children would play with anything unless it was pink – in which case the boys wouldn’t touch it and, sometimes, the girls would be quite proprietorial about it. Perhaps we should just get rid of anything pink…” Teacher

7/ Make sure there aren’t ‘girls’ jobs and ‘boys’ jobs

Who gets asked to do what? Is it always ‘three strong boys’ who move the chairs? Or ‘two trustworthy girls’ who take a message? It’s easy to fall into a pattern – mix it up and try asking someone different.

“EVERY assembly I’ve attended has had all major parts performed by girls even when they don’t need to be. Drives me CRAZY.”  Jenny, London

“I asked some Year 4 girls to put out the chairs. They said ‘great – we never get asked to do that’ – so I think they do notice the different ways in which genders are treated.” Teacher

8/ Pick other ways to divide up the children

Are girls’ and boys’ coat pegs labels or lunchbag shelves coloured pink or blue? Do boys and girls line up separately? Using gender to divide the children up can be quick and convenient, but it gives them the constant message that being a boy or a girl is the most important thing about them and reinforces stereotypes. Getting the children to line up a different way – by age, birthday, alphabetically – can be a subtle but effective way of encouraging them to think about their identity in different ways.

Encouraging children to work in mixed pairs or groups can have benefits too.

“Working in mixed pairs and groups challenges them – they have to be more adventurous about talking and learning from each other. They stay on task more and talk in full sentences. It keeps them on their toes because it is different from the playground where they tend to play in single sex groups. Some children object but we usually find they are the ones it’s most effective with!”  Teacher

9/ Use inclusive language

Small changes, like saying ‘children’ instead of ‘girls and boys’ or ‘parents and carers’ or ‘families’ rather than ‘Mums and Dads’ can help to affirm the things we have in common rather than our differences.

10/ Think about rewards and sanctions

Are boys and girls rewarded differently, or given different sanctions for similar behaviour? Do rewards imply that you think boys and girls can’t like the same things?

“My daughter was quite upset when ALL the boys were punished for a rowdy game that SOME of the boys had been playing. She could see it was unfair to just assume they all behave the same way. What are they supposed to learn from that?” Jane, Cardiff

“My son’s teacher gave out end of term books, which was really nice of her, but they were wrapped in pink/blue and labelled ‘Boy’ or ‘Girl’. The boys got a dinosaur or pirate book and the girls got princesses and glitter. On the other hand my daughter’s teacher also gave out books; my daughter (7) got a science one as she loves science and the teacher had chosen them books based on their own interests, which was just brilliant. Shows how it can be done!” Jennifer, Essex

“I thought they would complain but they didn’t [when I handed out pink and blue reward stickers randomly]. I realised that I was the one who, unconsciously, had been affirming stereotypes about pink and blue.” Teacher

This material draws on the NUT’s Breaking the Mould project resources. These contain more ideas and examples of how to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom, particularly the report Boys’ Things and Girls’ Things . Quotes are drawn from the project report and supporters of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign.

See our schools pages for a lesson plan, more information on why stereotypes matter in school and links to other useful resources.

12 Comments

  1. Sarah W.

    I work in Early Years, and am very conscious about trying to counter stereotyping. I thought this article would be helpful, but instead find myself horrified that anyone working in education might still need these things to be suggested to them.

    My current awareness is focussed on the words of songs- for example in ‘3 little monkeys’, not always singing ‘1 fell off and bumped *his* head’, or in ‘Miss Polly’ sometimes having the doctor come ‘with *her* bag and her hat’

  2. Yes, I remember suddenly realising that all the animals in ‘Dear Zoo’ are male and being shocked not so much by the fact that they were, but that I’d read it about 4000 times before I noticed… So I started changing the pronouns – the kids were too young to notice.

    It’s great to hear that all these tactics are second nature in your setting Sarah – sadly my own experience is that many teachers don’t always notice how much they are reinforcing stereotypes in some of the things they do, and this is backed up by the stories that campaign supporters have shared. I think sometimes it’s related to well-meaning attempts to address concerns about keeping boys interested, but reinforcing stereotypes is counterproductive. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130212100554.htm

  3. Sara J

    I agree with Sarah W. I think most modern educational professionals are very aware and active in challenging gender stereotypes. However, it is sometimes an uphill battle when these stereotypes are mantained by what children encounter outside school, through the media, their own families or other influences of society.

  4. Alison Heal

    I left classroom teaching in the late 1990s, when I took a break to have my own children. It seems to me that everything you mention here WAS second nature to a young teacher who had grown up in the ’70s and ’80s. It was second nature to me and my husband as parents, too. But now I’m sure it’s much more of an issue. Things have really regressed.

  5. Deborah

    I always use Aunt Polly as Miss has so many connotations to it when referring about a child (polite, spoilt, rich etc.) However, my daughter just started school this week and I’m horrified all the female teachers are called Miss or Mrs. I thought this was draconian but obviously I’ve not been around the school system a while. Firstly it tells everyone who is married and I don’t think relationship status should be branded on people’s names like that. Secondly male teachers are more likely to be called Sir which is traditionally a far superior title. There are some called Mr but of course there isnt a use of Master for a male over 14 yrs (simply because their mairital status isn’t what graduates them into being a fully actualised human being). Some people think first names are disrespectful & yet it’s so much more respectfull to learn someone’s names rather than call the ‘MISSSS……’. I really don’t want my daughter to be entrenched in this stupid old fashioned ideas but I guess I have to go along with it so she will fit in. Already had to buy her girls trousers which were less well made and functional than the boys in case she gets stereotyped. Lordy what a life.

  6. Hannah Wolfe

    Regardless of whether or not it is second nature to education professionals, this is a set of really useful guidelines for people like me: I’m a STEM ambassador and CodeClub volunteer – I teach an after school programming club at primary school level.

    I have no formal training in education and I don’t have kids of my own (yet). One of my motivations for being a STEM ambassador is to challenge the stereotypes around gender and technology. It is therefore something I’m very aware of, but having a list of things to think carefully about and be aware of when in the classroom is incredibly useful.

    Thank you for taking the time to put this together.

  7. ““The colour of things is very significant – often children would play with anything unless it was pink – in which case the boys wouldn’t touch it and, sometimes, the girls would be quite proprietorial about it. Perhaps we should just get rid of anything pink…””

    I hear you! I’m a Sunday School teacher. I have often found that it’s best to avoid having pink paper/card available for crafts, because otherwise you need to make sure there is enough for every single girl to have some, or they’ll feel hard done to. If there’s no pink, it’s fine. Fortunately that has not been the case every year.

    And the children would label the pink and purple paper as being ‘for girls’, so the boys shouldn’t have it. Although there was one little boy who would always chose pink if no red was available, because it’s the nearest to red. Of course, now that he’s bigger he won’t touch it.

  8. John

    As a nursery teacher I was actively involved in gender work in the 1990’s when working for the ILEA. Most of the things suggested here were being suggested then. It is really sad that nothing seems to have changed and in some instances the tired gender stereotypes have only become more entrenched. Good though to see that some teachers and parents see how damaging gender stereotyping us and are prepared to challenge.

  9. Sylvia Crompton

    I would like to be part of a campaign that actively gets rid of some of these stereotypes. Yesterday, while looking round ASDA I was horrified that every single item of baby clothing for a girl was in pink. Every birth congratulation card for a girl is pink and blue for a boy. I’m a girl. My favourite colours are blue, green and mauve. Is there any pressure group at the moment aimed at asking supermarkets, clothing manufacturers, greeting card manufacturers etc to do their bit in challenging gender stereotyping? An article in the Guardian today is concerned about the pressure on girls to be pretty. This is one of the places where the problem is rooted.

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