‘Helpful girls’ and ‘strong boys’: gender stereotyping in schools - RSA

‘Helpful girls’ and ‘strong boys’: gender stereotyping in schools


  • Picture of Caren Gestetner FRSA
    Caren Gestetner FRSA
    promoting gender equality in and through education; co-founder, Lifting Limits
  • Education
  • Teaching
  • Gender

Gender stereotyping surrounds children in every aspect of their lives and impacts future life choices, wellbeing and development. Caren Gestetner FRSA found that what happens in the classroom is no exception and argues for a whole school approach to challenging gender stereotypes.

That many manufacturers and retailers market toys, clothes and books differently to boys and girls will not come as a surprise to many parents, or to anyone who has been asked the question ‘is it for a boy or a girl?’ when shopping for a child’s birthday present. The effects of construction kits aimed at boys and creative play aimed at girls do not however stay outside the school gates and this may surprise those who think that education policy in the UK has ‘done’ gender equality.

Gender stereotyping matters; its impacts can be seen in children’s subject choices and career aspirations, which as adults follow them into the workplace in their chosen profession, level of seniority, pay and the extent to which accommodation is made for caring responsibilities. The impacts of gender stereotyping can be seen in health and mental health outcomes, with belief in traditional gender stereotypes linked to lower wellbeing in children, male suicide rates and the likelihood of being both a victim and a perpetrator of sexual violence in school. It affects men, boys and non-binary people as much as women and girls.

A whole school approach

Even the best schools are not immune from the effects of gender stereotyping, which comes into the school environment through the attitudes (conscious and unconscious) of staff, pupils and families and through language, books, teaching materials and curriculum teaching.  Look at who is taught in primary schools as scientists, artists, composers or explorers and you will find that white men dominate the curriculum.  This happens ‘below the radar’ – without sexist intent – yet can have a profound effect on children’s developing view of the world and their place in it.  Whilst children are often told in school that they can do anything regardless of gender and that sexist language is wrong, those overt messages are all too often undermined by what children see, hear and experience in the school environment. 

At Lifting Limits we believe that all children should be free to form their own interests and follow their own path in life, free from the limiting effects of gender stereotyping, and that is why we work to support primary schools to recognise and challenge these stereotypes. Evidence from a range of areas – focussing on girls’ physics participation, boys’ achievement in literacy and sexual harassment in schools – points to a ‘whole school’ approach as the way to address gender stereotypes. Lifting Limits drew on this evidence in developing our whole school programme, addressing school ethos, curriculum, routines and practices. To head off limiting gender norms before they become fixed in children, we work at primary school level, with children aged three to 11.

Throughout the school year 2018-19, we ran a pilot testing our whole school approach in five London schools. Through training and resources, staff gain the understanding and tools necessary to recognise and challenge gender stereotyping in the school environment. Through questioning, discussion and use of targeted teaching resources, children gain the awareness and critical thinking skills they need to call out gender stereotyping wherever they encounter it. As the biggest influence on very young children, we also seek to engage families through workshops and tailored resources. 

An independent evaluation demonstrated the success of the programme in challenging gender stereotypes and showed impact across a range of indicators. For staff, it increased awareness and confidence in addressing sexism and stereotyping with pupils, colleagues and parents; increased self-reflection feeding into changes in practice. For pupils, it led to a greater acceptance of a more diverse range of roles and possibilities for women and girls, men and boys (for themselves and for others), enhanced critical thinking and reduced polarisation and improved relations between girls and boys. Across schools it embedded awareness of gender stereotyping and informed the schools’ ethos and approach. Those parents and carers who attended Lifting Limits workshops became more able to talk about gender stereotyping with their children.

Beyond individual schools, all those with responsibility for the content, quality and delivery of children’s education have an important role to play and the evaluation report makes a number of specific recommendations to government, Ofsted, the middle tier and teacher training providers.

What next?

The Covid-19 crisis is throwing gendered inequalities into sharp relief with domestic violence escalating; women bearing the brunt of increased domestic work, home-schooling and childcare, and disproportionate job losses for mothers. At the same time, women are under-represented in decision-making roles and over-represented in high-risk frontline caring roles.

The seeds for these gender outcomes are sown from birth and it is more important now than ever that society lays the foundations for gender equality from the early years if they are to improve for future generations. Stereotyping continues to feed the gender unequal outcomes still seen across society. In order to stop it in its tracks, our education system needs both to banish stereotyping from the school environment and to equip the next generation to call it out wherever it appears.

Caren Gestetner is Chief Executive of Lifting Limits, a charity with a mission to challenge gender stereotyping and promote gender equality, in and through education. The report on Lifting Limits’ pilot year, We can all be who we want to be, and the full pilot impact evaluation report, are available here www.liftinglimits.org.uk/pilot-evaluation.



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