Thinking about traditional gender roles and stereotypes
Seeing a young boy do something considered feminine provokes some extended thinking about traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Anne O’Connor explores the issues in practice…
James is in the role-play area. He selects a pink dress to wear. The practitioner tells him ‘pink is for girls’, but his determined smile shows that James intends to wear it anyway. Another practitioner joins them and quietly confirms his choice.
After spending some time in front of the mirror at the ‘hairdresser’s’, James puts on a pair of high-heeled shoes. He pats his dress, holds out the skirt and begins to sway and dance.
The practitioner spots this and suggests they go to the carpet and find some music to dance to. Other children join them and James dances slowly and gracefully to the music. The adult joins in with the dancers and comments positively on James’ dancing skills while encouraging other boys to join in. Two boys decline, but stay to watch.
1 We are all products of our childhood and upbringing and may retain assumptions about gender roles and sexual orientation, passed down to us by the cultural background of our families and reinforced by the media.
As Jennie Lindon points out in her book Equality in Early Childhood – Linking theory and practice, we shouldn’t have to feel personally at fault because of these assumptions. However, she points out, ‘On the other hand, you are responsible now for thinking about your views, being willing to question some of them and to adjust how you behave as a grown-up towards this generation of young children’ (p5).
Looking at our personal prejudices and resolving to ‘unlearn’ them, while developing the skills and confidence to challenge discrimination and bias, can be tough. But if we don’t, we risk unintentionally perpetuating these prejudices in the learning environments we create.
2 Use the simple statement ‘pink is for girls’ as a starting point for generating discussion about bias around gender as well as sexual orientation:
- What are your beliefs about yourself as a female/male and how might this affect the way you treat children?
- What expectations do you have of girls that might be different from boys? How does this affect the way you treat both boys and girls?
- Walk round a toyshop and look at how the toys are displayed and packaged. What does this tell you about the messages society gives our children about gender difference? Are the same messages there in your setting ?
- What kind of role models do you give to children? What do you say about children’s abilities and about your own adult abilities that challenge (or reinforce) gender stereotypes?
- Do you challenge children on their expectations and gender assumptions? How do you do this while supporting their need to ‘join the club’ of their own gender?
- Do you reflect on your observations in an open-minded way before deciding whether or not a child’s activity is valuable or acceptable? For example, do you have fixed ideas about ‘superhero’ or war play?
- Do you catch yourself expressing surprise at a girl’s mechanical expertise or amusement at a boy’s preference for dressing up in high heels? How might you reflect on this to challenge your own assumptions?
- Does your setting enable boys and girls to develop a definition of masculinity that redefines what it means to be strong, courageous and admired by others, and a definition of femininity that includes ambitions, technical skills and self- determination?
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Article written by Anne O’Connor and published in Nursery World © www.nurseryworld.co.uk