Language Tips

Research about education shows that boys are praised more than girls for sharing correct knowledge, and wrong answers provided by boys are likely to be overlooked. In contrast, girls are more often criticised for incorrect answers, and teachers tend to provide less praise for correct answers given by girls. From this, an expectation arises that boys’ knowledge is more highly valued than that of girls, which can convince girls that they are less competent than boys. (Source)


Gender Neutral Language

The words we use to communicate influence how we think and act. Think about whether what you say to the children reinforces gender stereotypes, and if so, use more neutral and inclusive language. This will support their understanding that everyone can do or like anything, regardless of gender. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Try greeting the children with ‘hello everyone’ or ‘children’ instead of ‘hello boys and girls’.
  • Use more inclusive pronouns – say ‘they’ or ‘them’ or ‘theirs’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘him’ or ‘hers’.
  • Compliment a girl because she has achieved something and not because of how she looks; try a compliment such as ‘I like your skipping’ and not only comments on her appearance such as ‘I like your hair.’
  • Use the same words of flattery for girls and boys.
  • Tell boys it’s OK to be scared, upset or emotional.
  • Tell girls it’s OK to get angry and to express this in a healthy way.
  • Praise all children when they share and display co-operative behaviour with other children.


Sexist language

Substitute sexist language for inclusive synonyms.

‘Mankind’ becomes ‘humanity’, ‘people’ or ‘human beings’.

‘Man’s achievements’ become ‘human achievements’.

‘Man-made’ becomes ‘synthetic’, ‘manufactured’ or ‘machine-made’.

‘The common man’ becomes ‘the average person’ or ‘ordinary people’.

‘Mr Squirrel’ becomes ‘squirrel’.

Firefighter - not fireman!

It is usually equally easy to be non-specific in terms of gender, sometimes it’s even easier because:

‘male nurse’ becomes ‘nurse’

‘woman doctor’ becomes ‘doctor’

‘chairman,’ ‘fireman’, ‘policeman’, ‘postman’ and so on, becomes ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson’, ‘firefighter’, ‘police officer’ or ‘postal worker’.



You can reflect on the questions below in pairs/trios in a supporting, trusting environment.

Think about whether you treat girls and boys who are crying the same – why?

Think about whether you treat disruptive behaviour of boys and girls differently – why?

Think about whether you interact more with boys or girls – why?


Support children with their language

Talk to children about how they understand gender and sexism.

Young children may have strong ideas that a particular toy or behaviour is not appropriate for their gender.

When a child says that something is ‘not for girls’ or ‘not for boys’ ask them why not and explore this with them.

Challenge behaviour which shows signs of gender discrimination, for example:

  • Using gender as an insult, like telling someone they ‘throw like a girl’
  • Putting down other children because of their choice of clothing or toy

If someone says ‘girls/boys shouldn’t/can’t do that’, ask why?

Turn the challenge into a discussion instead of a criticism.

Ask them why they think that way. What’s wrong with that toy choice?

Explain why stereotypical or prejudiced comments are unacceptable – don’t just say something’s ‘rude’.

Try to get deeper into why your children feel that way and it can help them to develop critical thoughts of their own.

It will help guide them towards seeing things more equally.

However, in having these conversations, make sure you don’t reinforce stereotypes by introducing them to children who may not yet have picked up that society has differing expectations of boys and girls.


This is an extract from Gender Equal Play in Early Learning and Childcare - download the full guide here.

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