Creating Gender Equal Play in Early Learning and Childcare
In recent year, children’s experience of childhood and play has become more gendered and polarised between girls and boys, with products such as toys, books, online resources and clothes increasingly being produced and marketed along gender lines (source).
Academic research, including the work of Dr Nancy Lombard from Glasgow Caledonian University, highlights the negative impact on all children of gender stereotyping and the important role that early learning and childcare (ELC) can have in positively promoting gender equality (source).
The current expansion of funded ELC means that many more staff are needed, which provides an unprecedented opportunity. This resource is therefore intended to complement the Scottish Government’s ongoing activity to attract more males to join the workforce, supported by key partners such as Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council. The Scottish Government’s Equally Safe strategy, for the prevention and eradication of violence against women and girls, is supported by this publication. It also meets the Public Sector Equality Duty, which applies to all public services in Scotland.
What is a stereotype?
Gender stereotyping is a deep-rooted and common issue. Stereotypes perpetuate inequality and reinforce preconceptions about what a person will like or how they will behave, simply because they belong to a particular group. When it comes to gender, stereotypes are based on an assumption that all boys will be the same and like the same things, and all girls will be the same and like the same things. This puts pressure on boys and girls to conform to certain notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ which can really limit and restrict young children. Stereotypes influence the activities children engage in, their interests and skills – and, ultimately, the roles they take in society as adults.
Why does avoiding gender stereotyping matter in the early years?
A gender equality approach means helping children to achieve and aspire. We want children to be whoever they want to be and make them feel equally comfortable playing football or taking dance classes and aspiring to a wide variety of careers and pathways.
Breaking down gender stereotypes from a young age helps to stop the negative consequences of inequality and discrimination as it can support children grow into adults who aren’t limited by expectations based on their sex. By providing children with environments that encourage nongendered norms and expectations, children can feel more accepted and celebrated for their individuality. They can broaden their aspirations and be more open to a wide range of opportunities.
Gender inequality is a root cause of violence against women and girls, and despite the many advances being made there remain persistent inequalities between men and women (source). Evidence shows that levels of violence against women are significantly and consistently higher in societies, communities and relationships where there are more rigid distinctions between the roles of men and women (source). It is vital that ELC practitioners, parents and carers throughout all stages of the early learner journey are equipped to challenge rigid and harmful gender stereotypes.
What are the harms of gender stereotyping in the early years?
Rigid gender norms and gender stereotyping have a negative impact on children’s outcomes and can lead to poor mental health, self-esteem and body image. The damaging effects of these early gender stereotypes also have an impact on children later in life. This includes contributing to girls being at risk of leaving school early, dropping out of sports, eating disorders, early pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infection, exposure to different forms of violence against women, and depression. Because of our social gender norms, there is a stereotype that boys and men should not express their emotions as it makes them too feminine, less manly or weak, and consequently they may try to appear emotionally strong when facing difficult life events. This has an impact on their mental health. In Scotland in 2016 (source) the suicide rate for men was more than two-and-a-half times that for women.
Moreover, reinforcing a stereotype that boys need to be strong encourages them to engage in risky behaviour like smoking, drinking and using drugs at an earlier age as well as engage in, and be the victims of, physical violence to a much greater extent than girls. Boys and men die more frequently from unintentional injuries and suicide, and their life expectancy is shorter than that of women (source).
Children are also bullied for not meeting stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl; and children who do not conform to gender stereotypes may experience negative feelings about themselves.
One of the harmful impacts of gender stereotyping is that they limit how children imagine their futures. Stereotypes can convince children that certain options are open to them while others are not. This early influence has long-term consequences first in school subject choice and later in career choice. This might take the form of little girls feeling like they cannot be interested in block play and cars or pursue a career as a firefighter and little boys feeling like they should not show nurturing skills or pursue a career in nursing - or ELC.
“Success will be marked by more girls going into technology and more boys going into childcare.” Naomi Eisenstadt, the Scottish Government’s anti-poverty adviser (source).
To hear some personal examples of what it’s like living with gender stereotypes listen to: Tony Porter at TEDWomen “Don’t act like a man” and Ria Chinchankar at TEDxYouth Gender Roles in Society.
This resource has been co-produced by the Care Inspectorate and Zero Tolerance in order to help practitioners enhance gender equality for children across all ELC settings. As part of this collaborative project, we worked in partnership with other organisations including Play Scotland, Education Scotland, NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Improvement and the Scottish Childminding Association.
Why this guide?
While most people agree that gender equality is a good idea, within ELC services there is a need for advice and guidance for practitioners on how to support gender equality and avoid harmful stereotyping in their practice. The resource therefore offers practical and helpful tips on how to promote gender equality in an accessible way. As well as sharing practice examples from a range of different settings, we also advise on other practice resources available to services, such as children’s books, toys and activities, training and further reading.
ELC practitioners are in a unique and important position to influence children’s development. They also have the capacity to create environments that encourage equal and respectful relationships, break down harmful gender norms and promote gender equality to ensure that children are free from limiting gender stereotypes.