Gender stereotypes in childhood: what’s the harm?

I've always been curious about the nature versus nurture debate, and how it relates to gender inequality. When we look at the gender gap, from how the share of unpaid care is allocated, to the proportion of female MPs in the house of commons (34%) it might be easy to argue that there must be innate biological differences between men and women. However, recent research in the neuroscience and developmental psychology field show that the differences in the ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain have long been overstated. 

Eva Pemberton

Harmful Gender stereotypes blog primary

In her book, Delusions of Gender, Neuroscientist Cordelia Fine points out the flaws in assumptive studies and demonstrates how very few structural differences exist. She talks about how ‘our minds, society and neurosexism create difference. Together they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable and changeable.’ Ultimately, the majority of gender differences are not biologically determined but created by social constructs and our environment. Society prescribes the patterns of gendered behaviour we follow – not our genetics.

Why does this matter?

Gender stereotypes, on the surface, may seem like a trivial issue, but it’s not just a case of too much pink and blue. If we impose rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity on children, we limit their potential and actually cause real harm in later life.

Gender stereotypes teach boys not to express their emotions, and tell girls to be nice and obedient and to care about their appearance. Coupled with a lack of role models and discriminative attitudes, it is no surprise we do not have enough women in STEM careers (8% of apprentices are women) or a solid representation of men in the care sector.

Aside from career choice, gender stereotypes can affect every part of life, contributing towards poor mental health in young people, higher male suicide rates, low self-esteem in girls and issues with body image (1 in 5 14 year olds self-harm), furthermore allowing a culture of toxic masculinity and violence against women to go unchecked.

For those who don’t conform to the ‘traditional roles’ of society i.e. male/female, such emphasis on stereotyping and discrimination can exacerbate their struggle to feel accepted. There are an increasing number of young people who identify differently to the gender assigned to them at birth, and who are often more likely to suffer from poor mental health as a result of suppressing their real self or facing discrimination because they don’t fit into the rigid traditional gender structures. 

To me, it seems crazy that we still create the conditions for children to trust entirely false ideas of identity when this is preventable. That said, eradicating something so tightly woven into our society (so much so, we often don’t even notice them) is no easy feat.

How stereotypes show up

Research shows that children’s attitudes towards gender are fully formed by the age of seven. From an early age, they latch onto stereotypes as a way to categorise and make sense of the world. Their social need to belong and fit in with their ascribed gender - along with the constant ways gender roles are reinforced to them throughout society - can be difficult for parents and caregivers to challenge, even with the best intentions.

In the commercial sector, many retailers still market children’s toys, books, cards and clothes based on gender. We’ve all seen slogans on a t-shirt like ‘princess’ for girls and a ‘I’m a monster’ for boys. Stereotypes are still prevalent in the media, with films, programmes, and storylines showing outdated and limited representations of gender.

Education undoubtedly has a large influence. The BBC’s ‘Can our kids go gender free?’ followed Doctor Javid Abdelmoneim during a six-week experiment in a Year Three class in the Isle of Wight, as they created a ‘gender-neutral’ space.

At the start of the experiment, children’s behaviour and psychological traits were assessed, from confidence to self-esteem, empathy and social skills, along with their existing opinions of how women and men should live their life. Girls underestimated their intelligence and had lower self-esteem, whereas boys had a tendency to over-estimate their achievements and ability. Girls scored more highly on vocabulary to describe their emotions, whereas boys’ results depicted themselves as angry, with low-levels of empathy. 

The study also analysed how the classroom was set up, how the teacher addressed and managed the children, and how the children interacted with each other. They found that the teacher differently rewarded boys’ and girls’ behaviour and segregated the children by gender unnecessarily. To combat this, they attempted to remove any gender-based inferences as far as possible, eliminating harmful language and bringing in non-conforming role models, such as a female mechanic and a male ballet dancer.

The programme also highlighted the influence of parenting and how caregivers unconsciously teach gender stereotypes. Through an experiment where toddlers' clothes were swapped to convey the opposite gender, adults were assigned to choose toys for the children. Naturally, they gave the ‘traditionally feminine’, fluffy, princess toys to the girl and Thomas the Tank Engine to boys. This may be a simplistic example, but it’s easy to see how seemingly innocent acts like this can persistently and repeatedly perpetuate stereotypes through unconscious bias. 

Through the documentary, teaching the children to challenge ingrained assumptions about gender improved the girls’ self-esteem, and the boys were able to express a wider range of emotions, which was thought to explain the 57% decrease in their disruptive behaviours.

So what can we do?

With such embedded structures, tackling gender stereotypes requires a fully holistic approach. The Fawcett Society’s report outlines this, calling for this issue to become a Government priority. From an education standpoint, they recommend that the early years sector should be better valued, including an investment in training for educators, improved salary prospects, funding for inclusive resources, and a whole-school approach taken to embedding gender equality. 

People are tackling this at a grassroots level also. Two charities, Lifting Limits and You Be You, have carried out small-scale programmes in primary schools to challenge gender equality and these show promising results.

From a parenting standpoint, this can be tricky but a starting point would be equalised parental leave, role modelling equality, and encouraging children to take part in a range of activities.

We also need retailers to promote inclusive materials and stop marketing their products by gender. The ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ campaign, all led by a parent, volunteer community, lobbies children’s toy and publishing industries to commit to being more gender-neutral. 

On a general level, we all need to challenge our own unconscious bias around gender. Even just creating awareness of the issue and working towards challenging stereotypes in whichever arena of life they arise, we can all make a positive contribution to tackling gender inequalities in later life.