Taking steps towards gender equality in the early years

Did you know blue used to be for girls and pink for boys? Gender stereotypes are hard to recognise because we have been exposed to them our entire lives. Assumptions about what it means to be male or female impact everything from appearance, mental & physical health, relationships, education, hobbies, career and income.

A survey conducted by Zero Tolerance in 2015 The Default Setting: What Parents Say about Gender Stereotyping in their Children’s Early-Years’ found that nearly 90% of parents in Scotland wanted their boys & girls treated the same in their early years.

Many parents were concerned about the restrictions on children which stem from old-fashioned yet pervasive assumptions about what it means to be a ‘girl’ or ‘boy’. The idea that boys and men are supposed to be strong and dominant and girls are supposed to be weak and subservient is hard to counter in the face of advertising and media images, and a dearth of alternative role models for children and their parents. Parents surveyed wanted gender equality to become integral in early years, health care, nursery and primary schools, something which Zero Tolerance is currently working towards.

Indeed developmental research finds better mental health among children who develop a mix of traditionally masculine and feminine skills and interests — like playing competitive sports and discussing emotions. So we know gender equality is good for kids. We also know genderinequality is bad for adults: violence against women stems from prejudiced attitudes towards gender and the highest rate of suicide in the UK is among young men who are generally raised to feel they should not talk about their emotions.

As adults the continuation of these outdated, harmful stereotypes is our fault. While not directly responsible for notions which have been with us for centuries, few of us examine our own behaviour to see how we are transmitting such stereotypes to children. Have you ever asked yourself ‘would I say that to a boy/girl?’ If so, well done; if not, please try.

Research is clear that children are not born gendered – they learn from adults how our society expects men and women to behave. The good news is that this means we can begin to play a positive role by creating more healthy, rounded understanding of what it means to be male or female. By familiarising yourself with the origins and consequences of gender stereotype development you can prevent, challenge and begin undo the damage these patterns can inflict on children. For information, tips and support on how to do this Zero Tolerance has produced the ‘Just Like a Child’ guide to gender equality in the early years. This report features research, examples of good practice and a selection of resources including reading lists for young children featuring brave women, caring men and everything in between: let’s stop stereotypes deciding what our children can be.