On 29th October 2018, delegates from the public, private and charitable sectors came together to explore the question “What does gender equality look like in childhood?” The event was part of the Mayor of London’s #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign and brought together champions of change from education, industry, business and government.
Evidence shared throughout the day created a stark picture of childhood. New research data indicates that gender stereotyping is everywhere and that gender bias has become so entrenched as to be almost invisible. While there is widespread consensus that children of all genders can be, and do, anything they want, we continue to dress toddlers in stereotypically gendered clothes, give them gender-specific toys, assign gender-specific attributes, all before they can even talk. And this bias, it seems, often begins in the womb, with parents using gender-specific language to address their baby bumps.
Given the ubiquity of gender stereotyping, it was no surprise to learn that the aspirations of children as young as 4 are heavily correlated with gender. Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) was a big focus for the day, with speakers sharing how patterns established in early childhood go on to shape a world where only 8% of STEM apprenticeships and 14% of the STEM workforce are women. And the gender gap in the caring professions is equally marked. Less than 10% of those studying health and social care in 2018 were boys and only 2% of early years professionals are men. It seems that while we can all agree that caring, nurturing and empathy are essential qualities when it comes to relationships and fatherhood, when it comes to boys' play, we are still choosing guns and construction toys over dolls and play houses.
A clear message from the day was that advertising and product development are key. Children from Gillespie Primary school in Islington asked the panel to think about why we always direct boys towards adventure stories, why girl toys always have long hair and how advertising can be made more positive for children so they don’t always feel so ‘judged’. Rosie Rios, 43rd Treasurer of the United States who went on to spearhead the the Teachers Righting History programme, described how she had to customise a Mattel Asian Barbie in order to gift it to her sports-loving, basketball-playing daughter - an experience that led her to play an influential role in Mattel’s new Celebrity Role Models Barbie collection.
Equally clear was that concern about gender stereotyping is not new. Emma Perkins, Senior Director at LEGO, shared a letter from LEGO to parents from the 1970s reminding them of the importance of gender-neutral play. Olivia Dickenson from Let Toys Be Toys highlighted research from the early 1980s demonstrating the limitations placed on boys and girls’ aspirations and life chances through gender stereotyping. With well over 40 years of research indicating that gender stereotyping in childhood limits potential, expression and creativity, has a direct impact on subject choices, career choices and earning potential, not to mention the impact on relationships, parenthood and mental health, the real question is, why have we not done something about this sooner?
The good news is that that an increasing number of people are taking action. Exciting new initiatives were announced at the conference that encourage schools, educators and parents to get involved. Beth Bramley from the Opening Doors project at Institute of Physics, reminded us that getting more girls doing STEM subjects is not enough. We need to address the root causes of gender inequality. For educators, this means working at a whole school level, from early years right the way through secondary school. It requires dedicated leadership, time, and the opportunity to explore difficult questions about social conditioning and how children learn and develop.
Is your school ready to take action?
Providing a safe space to explore some challenging questions is exactly what we seek to achieve through our one-day CPD course Gender Matters: gender equality, gender identity and trans inclusion in schools. The course starts by looking at how gender norms in society are replicated and even reinforced through education. We find that school staff are very willing to promote gender equality, but with little time to talk about gender or reflect on current practice, it can be hard for schools to identify manageable steps to challenge stereotypes in their setting. To help kick start this process, we have pulled together key evidence and resources from leading researchers and practitioners, many of which featured at the #EqualPlay event, to support teachers and school staff to champion change in their school.
Our Gender Matters course is part of the Learn Equality, Live Equal programme, and hundreds of schools have already benefitted from our bespoke programme of support, training and resources, funded by the Government Equalities Office. From the 400 schools who took part last year, we can already see the difference it has made:
- 74% schools carried out a pupil consultation activity, leading to establishment of new student groups, safe spaces, wellbeing committees and a host of assemblies, competitions and poster campaigns
- 87% updated their policies, including developing student-friendly anti-bullying policies which were circulated to parents
- 77% updated resources and curricula including purchasing new books for the library, introducing new schemes of work to RSE, building LGBT identities into work on British Values
- 80% delivered INSET training, including basic awareness training on terminology, regular updates on staff training events and the roll-out of eLearning courses
In sport activities, we now encourage boys and girls to participate in the sports that they enjoy, whether that is football, dance, netball, rugby and always have mixed teams when playing in competitions/tournaments
Learn Equality, Live Equal participant, Herefordshire
Join us for the next Gender Matters course in London on 14th November 2018. The course includes a free e-learning module that can be shared with all school staff. Gender Matters is also available to commission nationwide.
Dr Polly Haste
Head of Training and Practice
Sex Education Forum