“Our kids weren’t born different, it was the world around them that was treating them differently. The way people spoke to them and the language they used, the toys and clothes they gave them, and the expectations they had of them - they were enforcing certain gender roles, they were policing their behaviour”(1)
Alongside parents and carers, teachers are with children for a majority of their formative years. The way we act and the language we use has a profound impact on the way they approach the world and on how they interact with others.
Gender is still, unfortunately, one of the main ways we categorise each other; it can determine the roles we play, our interests, how we dress and the feelings we express. We now know that gender is a social construct, changing and moving over time and so is no longer a reasonable basis for labelling or grouping.
As educators, being mindful of the way we behave and the language we use could be the difference between a child comfortably choosing a path they want to take rather than unsatisfyingly taking the path that is expected based on their gender.
It is our responsibility, as educators, to ensure our classrooms offer children the freedom to explore and express but most importantly create opportunities for all, no matter what their gender is.
Here are some simple changes you can contemplate to make your classroom more open minded, inclusive and accessible in terms of gender.
Ensure your book corner has an equal amount of books with female and male protagonists and an equal amount of female and male authors.
Unfortunately the world of children’s books is full of stereotypes and male protagonists. Sixty-eight percent of the books on the Times list (Top 100 Children’s Books of all Time) featured a male protagonist, “while only 19 percent starred a female (13 percent focused on both a male and female protagonist or the gender or the protagonist was not identified). In simple terms, not even a quarter of the best children's books of all time are about a female character, let alone a non-binary character.”(2)
This is especially surprising when “a 2009 study from the UK Department of Education found that a much higher portion (58 percent) of girls enjoy reading for pleasure than boys (43 percent).”(2) So even when girls are our main readers, authors and publishers are failing to represent them in the world of picture books.
Switching up the gender roles in story books is a great way to explore other options with children. If they notice you have done it then it is the perfect way to open up conversation about the gender roles assigned in stories. Gender Swapped Fairy Tales by Kerry Fransman is a great start!
Steer clear of targeting genders in your planning
Quite often we can talk about and plan for specific genders. It is not uncommon to hear “the boys are really into trucks” or “let's put the dolls out for the girls this week”. Try not to plan with preconceived ideas as to what children will like based on their gender. Children will only live up to the expectations we create and will usually stop at the boundaries we put in place.
Aim to avoid using genders to separate or group children in school
Language such as “all the boys line up” or “can the girls get into a group over here” allows gender to become an important aspect of school life determining who they are and their place in the world. It can also set genders up against one another and with competitiveness comes winning and losing - nobody should be losing because of their gender!
Be mindful with the placement of your resources
Placing all of the play make-up and the dolls in the home area suggests that only mums/girls like make-up and rules out that kind of play for children who now associate those resources with “girls things”. Try experimenting with the placement of resources such as placing the make-up inside a large truck outside or in a more neutral place such as the malleable area. Explore and get creative, igniting conversation and challenging thinking.
Refrain from making assumptions when talking to a child
Be mindful of reactions to behaviour that fall outside of the gender norms we have constructed. If a boy puts on a dress, reacting surprised or smiling and sharing it with a colleague as an interesting anecdote can suggest that it is odd behaviour and make the child feel that the behaviour is unwelcome. Try to think about what might be said to a girl putting on the same dress (probably nothing!) and respond appropriately.
Be mindful of the language you are using
We are more likely to use words such as “caring”, “kind” or “gentle” with girls and words such as “strong”, “fast'' and “active” with boys. As soon as you pay attention you will realise how present it is.
Clinical Psychologist, Christopher Hunt says that "Studies have shown that once [parents] know the sex of their child they differ in how they describe feeling them move. A boy who is felt kicking is called 'active' or 'a future soccer player'; a girl who is felt kicking is called 'temperamental' and 'emotional' - the same sensation is given a positive connotation for boys and a negative one for girls.”(3)
Common phrases such as “boys stop running around” and “girls you are sitting so nicely” are words we can use so often without even noticing. Try to use "children" instead of separating behaviours according to gender.
Challenge yourself and begin to pay attention to what you say and introduce new ways of communicating. Doing this in front of the children will also show that we are all learning and challenging this kind of thinking.
"It is often said that language has the power to 'bewitch' us. By this, I mean that the words we use often send subtle signals to individuals about how the world looks at them and how they are expected to behave, often without the speaker being aware."(3)
Think about the labels you use
“When there is a choice between a word which specifies a person's gender and a word which doesn't, you should choose the neutral one unless their gender is relevant to the context.”(4)
Try to use labels such as “Green Person”, “Firefighter”, “Police Officer” or “Head Teacher” instead of specifying the gender in the name. Quite often these labels end in “man” meaning that many jobs and roles feel shut off or unobtainable to girls, it also suggests that gender is an important part of the role.
Be bold and make these swaps in story books too, if the children recognise you have made these swaps then discuss it with them, ask them what they think. Challenging these ideas gives the children permission to question these problematic constructs.
Finally, it is important to mention that these changes don’t need to happen overnight. Small changes over time will be longer lasting and feel less daunting to you, your staff, the children and parents. Just remember that positive change will make a world of difference and make for a different world.
“The world we live in remains far from gender neutral, but moves towards gender fluidity are to be welcomed. They enable greater possibilities for all.”(5)
Listen to Natasha Eeles, founder of Bold Voices, discuss how education can drive change to tackle gender inequality and cultures of gendered violence here
The following books are great to read if you are interested in gender constructs and how we can progress to a more gender neutral and inclusive approach.
The Gender Agenda - Ros Ball and James Millar
The Gendered Brain - Gina Rippon
Is Gender Fluid? - Sally Hines
Delusions of Gender - Cordelia Fine
(1)The Gender Agenda by Ros Ball and James Millar
(5) Is Gender Fluid? - Sally Hines