Children in classroom

Back to school and gender stereotypes

How to speak to your children's school about gender stereotypes

By Clare Willetts – CEO not only pink and blue

At not only pink and blue we are often asked by parents how they can speak to their children’s school and nursery about gender stereotypes. Even by the age of three children have been absorbing messages from the stories, language, tone and behaviours around them. And in a world where there are so many influences it’s understandable why so many parents want to know that when it comes to education and play, their children will have equal opportunities. 

When we think about gender stereotypes we so often think of the pink/blue and of the lack of girls/women in science and maths but this is only a small part of the impact that gender stereotypes can have.

From uniform, to subject choices, to self selecting out of sport or play; gender stereotypes affects girls and boys from a young age.

boys being made fun of

A recent study by LEGO found that “71% of boys vs. 42% of girls say they worry about being made fun of if they play with a toy typically associated for the other gender”.[1] This means that boys, to a greater degree than girls, will select toys, not based on whether they enjoy playing with them or not, but rather because they are worried what others might think.

Peer to peer policing in children is one way these limiting gender stereotypes become embedded and can reduce the skillsets that children develop. Play is crucial to developing skills and different toys create different skill sets. When we think about subjects at school, those children who have not had the opportunity to develop their creative skills will be less likely to see creative subjects as an option for them. 

We know that adults play a big part in this; the LEGO study also found that “girls were five times more likely to be encouraged to dance or dress up than boys ”[2] and that they are “almost four times more likely to encourage boys over girls to engage sports”. [3] If we want our children to be able to grow up feeling equal and have equal opportunities we need to make sure that we are aware of the limitations we, as adults, parents and teachers, often place on them.

What can parents do?

As a parent of a child at school it can feel incredibly hard to discuss this subject with our children’s schools. After all, teachers have a lot to do already, teaching our children. But if we don’t get this right from the start, from the early years then we know that gender stereotypes can go on to impact children’s confidence, aspirations and mental wellbeing. And just as our understanding of the brain changes so does the techniques we use to help develop our children. Teaching is no different, the early years curriculum isn’t exactly the same as it was 50 years ago.

We’ve pulled together five questions you can ask your children’s school to open up the conversation about gender stereotypes. 

question mark on black background
5 questions to ask your children’s school

1. How do you ensure that you don’t reinforce gender stereotypes in the classroom?

Remember that different coloured stickers on pegs, reward certificates, splitting class activities by boy/girl or excusing certain behaviours because that is what ‘girls/boys do’ are all examples of gender bias.

2. Do you divide children into girls and boys? 

This is an important question. A study by Rebecca Bigler found that the more we divide girls and boys into separate groups with language, colours, or physically the more extreme children’s perceptions of traits within groups. This included occupations that were rated as only for women or only for men. [4] 

3. What is your approach to supporting equality?

Asking this ensures that there is a wider policy than the class teacher. There should be an approach from the head of the school and policies in place. This might cover the books that are included in the classrooms, their approach to playtime, and how they encourage group play.

4. How do you respond to children when they peer-to-peer police stereotypes – for example if a child excludes another because they say an activity/toy is only for girls/boys.

Challenging peer-to-peer policing and interrogating why a child thinks there is a divide is key to really changing behaviour. If children’s perceptions can be challenged they can they go on to be the most critically thinking about gender stereotypes and challenge their peers, which in turn creates a cycle of change.

5. Do you have diverse and inclusive characters who have a range of different roles in the books you read with children?

So many of the early stories children listen to are fairy tales and although good for some lessons, be wary of strangers, good will over-come evil, the roles tend to be heavily gender biased. Ensuring that the books children have access to at school are full of a range of characters, family set ups, heroes and roles is key to them understanding that isn’t simply one or two roles that they can aspire to.

There is a lot to discuss on this topic but this is a great way of starting the conversation with your children’s school. Be sure to follow our socials and sign up to our newsletter for in-depth discussion on gender stereotypes.

Other resources

We’ve got plenty of resources on our site so do pop over to our resources page. There you’ll find a helpful download with 10 tips to help challenge gender stereotypes (feel free to pass on a copy to your school!). We’ve also included other organisations who have more information on challenging gender stereotypes both at home and at school.

Did you know that we offer talks about shattering gender stereotypes for companies and businesses? Well, now you do! Check out our talks page to find out more, or get in touch with us via our contact page

Photo 1 by CDC on Unsplash

Photo 2 by Emily Morter on Unsplash

[1] [2] [3] https://www.lego.com/en-us/aboutus/news/2021/september/lego-ready-for-girls-campaign/

[4] Rebecca Bigler – The Role of Classification Skill in Moderating Environmental Influences on Children’s Gender Stereotyping

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