Sex and gender


Sex and gender

Are sex and gender the same?

Most commonly the term ‘sex’ is used to imply to the biological differences between men and women and the term ‘gender’ is used to imply to the way men and women behave, some of which is a result of ‘nature’ (caused by our genes) and some the result of ‘nurture’ (how we were brought up). However, sex and gender are both on a spectrum; so, for example, there are some people who do not feel comfortable in their gender identity and transition from one gender to another, from male to female (MtF) or female to male (FtM).

I work in a nursery. Recently I told my employer about my plan to go for gender reassignment surgery. I was told that if I went ahead with the operation I would lose my job because it may impact on the children in the setting.

There are a number of issues raised here:

Impact on the children: The Manager’s comment about the surgery impacting on the children is unhelpful and reflects on the Manager’s own discomfort rather than the reality of the situation. The children may well take an interest in your change of identity and this may instigate interest in gender roles and identity, but that would be perfectly natural and form part of young children’s normal developmental behaviour and desire for exploration and experimentation. You can learn more at Mermaids here.

Employment duties: The Equality Act was introduced in 2010 to ensure that unlawful employment practices such as this towards a transsexual employee would be made unlawful. It is against the law for your employer to discriminate against you by threatening to dismiss you on the basis that you are proposing to undergo a reassignment process. If your employer does sack you then it could amount to direct discrimination because of your gender reassignment. This may entitle you to bring a claim against them at an Employment Tribunal.

Our local authority is tackling boys’ underachievement but shouldn’t we also focus on girls’ achievements as well?

The second wave of feminism which started in the 1960s identified, among other things, that a focus was needed on the educational attainment of girls. Following the introduction of a range of changes in the educational system, we have now reached a position where girls are on average outperforming boys. Despite the rise in girls’ achievements there are still concerns for the underachievement of some girls in relation to their aspirations.

Determinants of aspirations are not straightforward – they change throughout childhood and are shaped by individual characteristics, such as the child’s family, peers, school, and community. Some research (Schoon, Martin and Ross, 2007) has found that girls consistently have higher aspirations than boys, however, other research (Leslie Morrison Gutman, Rodie Akerman, 2008) found that some girls, especially those from some minority ethnic groups and lower socio-economic backgrounds, tend to hold lower aspirations than their peer group despite early educational achievement. This is particularly marked when the girls grow up with multiple barriers. Low aspirations also extend to socially disadvantaged teenage parents who not only have low aspirations for themselves but also for their children.

The formation and development of aspirations are shaped early in childhood and are influenced by children’s experiences and their environment. However, aspirations tend to decline as children grow older and start to have a more realistic picture of their worlds. It is therefore essential that settings utilise this window of opportunity early in children lives to encourage girls to develop a ‘can do’ approach from an early age.

It is still important that boys’ underachievement is addressed but equally important that girls’ aspirations are not ignored. Early years settings can help support girls’ aspirations by:

  • building the confidence and self esteem of girls
  • providing positive images and stories of strong, female role models, such as JK Rowling
  • setting girls challenges and encouraging appropriate risk-taking
  • encouraging high expectations of girls
  • ensuring girls participate equally in activities
  • supporting families to model and encourage aspirations for their daughters, for example by offering family learning opportunities.

Some of the girls in our nursery appear to be obsessed by the colour pink. Is this interest healthy?

The current interest in the colour pink (mainly by girls) can be attributed to the toy and clothing industry, celebrity imagery and the media. It can also be influenced by the child’s peers and even their parents.

The good news is that according to the researcher and author of Nurture the Nature, Michael Gurian, over exposure to the colour pink does not have any profound biological effect. However, if this interest in all things pink starts to limit girl’s play choices and reinforces negative gender stereotypes then you may want to consider taking some simple steps in your setting such as:

  • ensuring that every child has the opportunity to access a wide range of toys and activities within the setting
  • Introduce books which explore gender roles such as Dogs Don't Do Ballet ( and for older children The Boy With Pink Hair (Perez Hilton)
  • question any behaviour that is stereotypical or discriminating to help children reflect on their actions and the impact of such on others
  • help extend children’s knowledge and understanding so they are not limited by ‘traditional’ ideas about what girls and boys can do.
  • ensure staff understand gender equality and use language and practice that do not perpetuate gender stereotypes eg blue is for boys and pink for girls

Why should we and how can we, involve more fathers in our setting?

The Early Years Foundation Stage recognises the key role that parents play in the learning and development of their children. In other words, partnership between practitioners and parents is key for supporting children’s development.

Research has documented the benefits to children when their fathers are involved with them. Therefore, it is important that when we say ‘parents’ we must include both mothers and fathers. But even so, research shows that only a few early years settings are successful in their attempts to involve fathers in their activities, generally where a practitioner has committed themselves to proactively involve fathers and where there is management commitment to it.

As well as getting management on board, we would suggest that you consider the following:

  • Make your setting appear more welcoming to fathers, for example by including images of men as well as women on the walls.
  • Ask fathers of the children in your setting what would interest them
  • Consider the nature and timing of events to see if they fit in with ‘your’ fathers’ schedules.
  • Ensure that all your literature (including posters and leaflets) specifically mentions fathers and mothers and does not just say ‘parents’.

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