Equality in the early years



Ahead of International Women's Day 2020, we look at some of the ways early years setting can help challenge gender stereotypes with young children. This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Under 5 magazine.

By Rachel Lawler

Tackling stereotypes is something educators working across all age groups have been doing for many years. Whether it is encouraging girls to try out new sports or helping boys develop a love of reading, there are many schemes focusing on ending perceived gender imbalances. But with lots of initiatives starting in secondary schools and colleges, are we leaving it too late to really challenge children’s thinking?

Gender Action is hoping to change this. Co-founded by King’s College London, UCL Institute of Education, Institute of Physics and University Council of Modern Languages, their research draws on gender inequality across education, from a lack of girls’ participation in technical sciences to a lack of boys studying languages. The scheme looks to start challenging stereotypes with the youngest children.

Starting early
“We were finding that interventions that happen in secondary schools were just too late. If you want to make systemic, sustainable change it has to happen early,” Georgina Phillips, recruitment and relationships officer at the scheme, explains. “Researchers say that by the age of three, children have already embedded some low-level stereotypes. It really does start young.”

The scheme takes a whole-setting approach, supporting practitioners to create a more level playing field for both boys and girls. It’s a broad scheme but deliberately so as it aims to lay a foundation for future conversations. 

Settings that sign up to the scheme can work through the scheme’s accreditation levels: supporter, initiator and champion. It is open to schools and early years settings, offering participants a range of resources and assistance to help them consider how they can improve their policies and practice.

But a lot of the consideration has to come from setting leaders themselves, as the scheme encourages them to identify areas of weakness themselves. “Self reflection is really important,” Georgina explains. “It’s your setting, your environment and you know it really well.”

Challenging assumptions
This self-reflection has led to some surprising realisations from participating settings. One team decided to start by observing various play areas throughout the day to see if they noticed whether any of them were particularly popular or unpopular with either gender.

“They had thought that the bikes were predominantly used by boys but they weren’t – it was actually just that the boys were a bit louder when they used them,” Georgina explains. In fact, a more or less even split of boys and girls were using the area.

Elsewhere, the same setting found that certain areas were more predominantly used by one gender. In these cases, they spoke with the children about why this was. This opened up dialogue with the children about whether boys and girls could play with particular toys and gave staff a chance to explain that they could play with whatever they wanted and that there is no such thing as “girls toys” or “boys toys”.

How it works

  • Ann Bernadt and Nell Gwynn nurseries in Southwark, London started by evaluating their use of gender-specific language. They also considered whether they were being influenced by any unconscious bias, such as directing boys towards the construction play area and girls towards the home area. They wanted to make sure children's ambitions were not limited by outdated stereotypes about gender roles.
  • Staff at the House of Commons Nursery in Westminister, run by LEYF, conducted an audit of all their literature, making changes where necessary. They also displayed posters across the setting, to help remind staff about the initiative and made an effort to ensure that children were not complimented on their looks. Using posters and books, they also offered girls successful female role models.

While of course it’s important to let children decide for themselves which toys they want to play with, it’s surprising how early children start to pick up on gender stereotypes in the world around them. children playing with toys

“A lot of research has shown that quite often in early years settings children end up policing each other and policing themselves,” Georgina explains. “It’s not just a case of free choice. It’s about having those active conversations with the children so that they know that it is okay to challenge things.”

Another setting involved in the scheme has been presenting children with examples to help challenge their perceptions of stereotypes through a ‘conversation box’.

The kit includes pictures of non-stereotypical characters, such as female firefighters or male nurses, to help open up conversations with the children. Practitioners ask the children: “Do you know anyone who does these jobs?”

Parents and providers
Involving parents in the conversation can also help extend the learning. Some of the settings involved in the project have considered opening up their training on the subject of gender to parents to help reinforce the messages at home. Much like in the setting, some parents may not have not noticed assumptions they have made. “It’s not easy,” Georgina says. “But children often find it easier than the parents.”

This is because while children in the early years may have already started to pick up on gender stereotypes, there is still plenty of opportunity to challenge them before they become embedded. This can make a real difference to children’s perceptions and have a huge impact on their future.

Expanding horizons
“If you’re able to get to children under the age of five, that is a really great time to stop stereotypes being accepted,” Georgina explains. “If you can have those conversations with them before the age of five, you can disrupt those ideas so that by the time a child reaches seven they won’t have started thinking: ‘Well I can’t bedoctor, because I’m a girl.’”

Find out more
Visit the Gender Action website
Read Under 5 magazine online
Eight ways to challeng gender stereotypes in the early years from Let Toys Be Toys