Challenging gender stereotypes at an early age

27 October 2016

The nature of my work means that I’m able to more easily balance work and family demands. When I’m not training, I’m lucky to be able to work from home, I have flexibility around school hours, and when I can I fit in my running during the day so that I can pick my son up from school at the gate and get to spend more time with him before bedtime. He just started school last September, so I want to try and be there for him and watch him take part in curricular and extra-curricular activities when I’m able to.

Recently I had the privilege of sitting in and observing one of his maths lessons with some of the other parents. He’s in a small class, most of which are boys. It was interesting to observe, for example, how much better the girls in the class did at adding and subtracting than the boys.


Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Schools


It’s well known that girls perform better than boys at school, but sadly this is not translated into the workplace. This is despite significant strides being made in narrowing the employment gap. The gender pay gap still remains wide at around 18%, and while some progress has been made to ensure more women are represented at board level, we still have a long way to go:

  • Women continue to be the primary carer of children and are therefore more likely to work part-time in lower-paid and lower-skilled jobs.
  • The number of women in leadership roles in the UK lags behind other countries, with around a fifth of leadership roles occupied by women compared to around a quarter globally.


But can gender stereotypes from a young age lead to gender inequality in the workplace?

I think so. Being a parent and having worked in diversity and inclusion for over 10 years, I’ve noticed how gender stereotypes can manifest themselves at an early age, purely from some of the things I hear in the playground, read in children’s books and see on TV.

When my son’s school has a fundraising event, a letter will go out to parents encouraging them to dress up: the boys as superheroes and the girls as super princesses.

Why not let the children decide for themselves? Sometimes I hear from my son and his peers: ‘Girls don’t play football’ or ‘Girls don’t drive trains or build things’. My son is learning all about space at the moment and his class are busy rehearsing a show for the parents. I asked what role each child was playing, and he said that girls don’t play the astronaut because that is what boys do as it’s messy! I try where I can to teach my son that girls can do everything boys can: play football, drive a train, become an astronaut.

But sadly gender stereotypes are still reinforced in schools and at home, influencing what children think and how they view and interact with each other. There is a movement, however, towards challenging gender stereotypes across social media by parents and some retailers.

Indeed, some retailers have abandoned gender segregation of toys to give children the choice to pick whatever toy they like, rather than assume the girls will go straight for the dolls and the boys will go for the cars/trains. I’ve also seen a well-known department store stock clothes that are not segregated by gender.


So what are schools doing to address assumptions about gender?

Following a report by the Institute of Physics in 2014 highlighting the challenges of gender stereotyping in schools, guidelines were sent out to all schools in the UK with practical tips on how they can address gender equality in the classroom through:

  • Choice of language used
  • Training on gender equality and unconscious bias
  • Appointing gender champions
  • More opportunities for interaction.

What effect this has had is too early to capture, but at least it recognises that there is an issue. Hopefully, such efforts will gradually change perceptions over time, in the classroom and – looking ahead – in the workplace as well.