Liz Ely explains why, at Zero Tolerance, they see challenging gender stereotypes in early childhood as a crucial part of their work preventing violence against women.
At Zero Tolerance our mission is to prevent violence against women before it occurs, which can only be achieved by eliminating its root cause, gender inequality. This is not an easy task when gender inequality is present in so many aspects of our lives and in wider society.
The stereotypes present in toys, children’s media and clothes tell boys they must be tough, that expression of emotion is a weakness; they tell girls that they matter less, their stories are less important and that their appearance is their main asset. These stereotypes foster a culture where violence against women is allowed to flourish.
This is why we developed Just Like A Child: Challenging Gender Stereotyping in the early years, a guide for childcare professionals to support them in challenging these stereotypes and providing an environment where girls and boys aren’t forced into categories which lead to inequality.
Gender training – start them young
Gender stereotypes affect and surround us all, so it is easy to be unaware of how we are treating children differently. It may feel like the most natural thing in the world to compliment a girl on how cute she looks in a new dress, but it is important to recognise what messages we are giving out about the importance of her physical appearance. Do we also tell her that we value what she thinks and does, as well as how she looks?
Putting boys into ‘the man box’
Similarly, it is important for us to address what messages we give to boys about expressing their emotions, and what it means to be a man.
In his excellent TEDTalk ‘A call to men’ American activist Tony Porter describes how he treated his son and daughter differently as young children. He speaks about how he would give his daughter all the time in the world to cry, but with his son he found himself acting in a different way.
“Kendall would come to me crying, it’s like as soon as I would hear him cry, a clock would go off. I would give the boy probably about 30 seconds, which means, by the time he got to me, I was already saying things like, ‘Why are you crying? Hold your head up. Look at me. Explain to me what’s wrong… I can’t understand you.’… I would find myself saying things like, ‘Just go in your room… Sit down, get yourself together and come back and talk to me when you can talk to me like a man’.
“He was five years old.”
Porter goes on to talk about how the ‘man box’ (or the ‘collective socialisation of men’) supports gender inequality and violence against women, including some powerful stories from his own experience.
Toys – helping to build the man box
By segregating and stereotyping toys for children, we confirm and support the existence of a ‘man box’. By telling children that certain toys are not for boys (or girls) we also tell boys that girls and femininity are inferior. It’s accepted for girls to cross the line and play with ‘boy’ toys, but not the other way around. The implication that ‘boys’ things are superior is clear
‘I work at an after school club for 5-9 year olds, this week one of the boys (let’s call him Bob) decided to sit at a table with some girls. One of the other boys started chanting at him ‘Bob is a girl, Bob is a girl’ in a really mocking way.’
If ‘girl’ is such a potent insult, what are we teaching boys about girls?
But isn’t that just nature?
Some people might suggest that stereotypes mimic natural behaviour; however evidence shows that stereotypes shape behaviour too. In her excellent book ‘Delusions of Gender’ Cordelia Fine gives examples of how reminding female students about negative stereotypes concerning women’s aptitude for maths and science actually led to lower test results than when they were not reminded of these stereotypes.
Experiments like this one (widely replicated) show the power of stereotypes on attainment in adult life, when the brain is more fully developed. Fine argues that in the early years, when the brain is more elastic, the potential impact of these stereotypes is even greater.
So what are we going to do about it?
Many stereotypes about men and women are so deeply ingrained we may not be aware of the ways in which the affect how we treat children. The Just Like A Child guide offers ways for practitioners to reflect on this and consider gender stereotyping within their childcare settings.
As well as supporting childcare workers to challenge stereotypes in daycare settings, we have joined together with White Ribbon Scotland to launch the Play Fair campaign, to support the aims of Let Toys Be Toys in Scotland. We provide opportunities for grassroots activists to meet others who wish to end gender stereotyping and take action in Scotland.
It may sometimes feel like an uphill struggle, but it is possible to change society. Let Toys Be Toys have already shown that it is possible to get toyshops to change their policies. If childcare workers, parents and campaigners join together to challenge stereotypes they will inevitably lose their power.
Liz Ely works for Zero Tolerance in Scotland as a development worker. Zero Tolerance aims to prevent violence against women in all its forms, and has a project working in the early years for which Liz is the lead.
Find out more about Play Fair via the Play Fair tumblr or follow @PlayFaircamp on twitter. Development worker Liz Ely is available to speak about this issue at events with staff or parents (Scotland only) and can be contacted directly on firstname.lastname@example.org