Equality and Diversity: Part 2 - Gender

Anne O'Connor
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Treating males and females as equal is not always easy in early years settings dealing with an unbalanced workforce and families' different cultural beliefs, says Anne O'Connor.

Ellen Wolpert writes in Start Seeing Diversity that 'Sexism is any attitude, action, or institutional practice that subordinates people because of their gender or assigns roles in society based on gender.'

When prejudice of this kind is backed up with 'institutional power', it can be imposed in ways that advantage one gender while disadvantaging the other.

Historically and politically, there has been a sense that a power contest exists between the sexes and until fairly recently, it seems females have been the losers. With the rise in gender awareness there have been some improvements, but the sense of winners and losers remains. For example, the recent positive rise in girls' achievements in education is now being outweighed by concerns that boys are falling behind. But it doesn't have to be a win/lose situation. Girls need to feel good about themselves as females and boys need to know that feeling good about themselves as males doesn't have to be at girls' expense.

Joining the club

Children like, and need, to know what's special about being a boy or a girl, a man or a woman. Research suggests there is a stage of social development where children need to explore what it means to 'join the club' of their gender.

Some aspects of this may fit the usual stereotypes (for example, girls liking pink, boys playing with guns) and can mortify parents and practitioners who feel they have been active in challenging such stereotypes. But being sensitive to this and giving the child space to explore how it feels to be a boy or a girl is important. Equally important is letting them know that they needn't be bound by stereotypes and that there are infinite ways to be a boy or a girl - as many ways, in fact, as there are people.

We know now that hormones play a part in the development of the brain. This helps explain some of the differences we generally (though not always) see between boys and girls at a very young age. One aspect of this is related to myelination in the brain - the protective sheathing of neurons that help new learning become secure and embedded. Differing rates of hormonal activity in boys and girls means that myelination generally happens later in boys than girls. This can help explain why boys sometimes reach milestones later, and is an important factor when we are thinking about 'readiness' for school.

Research also tells us that brain development can impact on spatial awareness, traditionally an area in which girls (in general) are considered to be less able. But we also need to think about the part social conditioning plays in discrimination against females. Take map reading, for instance. It may be true that a female brain may take a different approach to the task of map reading, but it is the way that men navigate that is taken to be the normal - and correct - way to do it. This could be applied to any number of aspects of daily life!


Another factor that we can't avoid is the effect of an early years workforce that is mostly female. This isn't women's fault, and there has never been a conspiracy to keep men out.

Rather, it is evidence of society's views of childcare, its financial worth and historical views of what was considered suitable work for women. But we have to ask ourselves some searching questions. How do boys define themselves in an environment that is mostly female? Interestingly enough, rather than becoming 'feminised', it seems more likely that their gender identity is based on 'not being like girls'.

Boys do need to see role models and older versions of themselves. Some may have these at home, but what about those who don't? Girls and boys alike also need to see men who are caring, expressive and good at homemaking, as well as DIY.

Working with parents

One thing that can make anti-bias work tricky is that good practice in one area can cause conflict with another. Putting gender equality into practice can sometimes cause dilemmas if, for instance, a family's culture or religion leads them to have deeply-held beliefs that boys and girls need to be treated differently. This is not a reason to avoid anti-bias practice. These dilemmas have to be resolved, and the same rules of mutual respect apply as with all interactions and conflict negotiation with parents.

- Be clear and honest in your setting's policy statements about the way you approach gender equality.

- Be ready to explain what you do and why, as well as what you don't do. (Sometimes people make wrongful assumptions that anti-bias practice involves rigid rules and expectations and 'banning' of certain resources and activities).

- Show respect for parents' views by showing your willingness to listen and understand their point of view. Remember how you may have resisted aspects of anti-bias behaviour because of your own cultural or religious upbringing.

- Maintain your professional stance by being clear and honest about your policies so that parents can make an informed choice about whether the setting is right for them.


Although fathers are increasingly involved in the daily care of their children, fathers and male carers may still experience bias.

- Don't make assumptions about a father's role in a family. Men can be lone parents and childminders as well as primary or secondary carer in a two-parent family.

- Don't assume that a father turning up in the setting is just a temporary arrangement - and don't address him simply as someone to send messages back home to the mother.

- Look at ways in which you can encourage fathers and male carers to share fully in the life of your setting.

Future Generations

Gender equality is a huge and complex subject and is separate from, though often linked with, equality around issues of sexual orientation. (This will be explored in Part 4 of the series.) It has important implications for society as new technologies and changing patterns and expectations of work, both in and out of the home, continue to affect how both boys and girls construct their view of themselves and their future lives.

As early years practitioners, we have an important role to play in enabling children to grow into adults whose gender will be important to them, but will not define them or limit their life choices.

ASK YOURSELF ... About your attitudes

- What beliefs do you have about yourself as a male or a female? How might this affect the way you treat children?

- What expectations do you have of girls that might be different from boys? How does this affect your treatment of both?

- What do you know about the way the brain develops and how this can affect physical, cognitive and emotional development in boys and girls?

- What kind of role models do you and your colleagues give to children? What do you say about children's abilities and your own adult abilities that challenge (or reinforce) gender stereotypes?

- Listen to each other and the comments you make about boys/girls, women/men and ask: 'Would we say/think/do the same if it was a child of the opposite gender?'

- Do you challenge children on their expectations and gender assumptions? How do you do this while supporting their need to 'join the club' of their own gender?

- How do you encourage boys and girls to make the most of all available play experiences? How much time do you spend observing and monitoring children's play choices so that you have real information about what motivates them? How might the environment support or challenge their choices?

- Do you reflect on your observations in an open-minded way before deciding if a child's activity is valuable or acceptable or not? For example, do you have fixed ideas about 'superheroes'? Do you think 'proper learning' can occur outdoors?

- What do your resources tell children about the social world? That pink is a colour only for girls? That bikes are for boys?

- Do you express surprise at a girl's mechanical expertise or amusement at a boy's preference for dressing up in high-heel shoes? How might you reflect on this to challenge your own assumptions?

- Do you find it easier to deal with girls playing with boys' toys than boys playing with dolls or dressing up in frocks?

- Is your outdoor area always available and part of your continuous provision? Think of how this supports both boys and girls to make the most of their time in the setting.

- Does your setting enable boys and girls to develop a definition of masculinity that redefines what it means to be strong, courageous and admired by others? And a definition of femininity that includes goals and ambitions, technical skills and self- determination?

- What do you need to do to help parents understand the reasons for policies and good practice in gender equality?

- How do you support colleagues in their professional development in this area, particularly where there may be conflicts with their religious or cultural upbringing?

- Ask yourself: What's it like to be a boy in our setting? If the workforce were all male, how would it be for the girls? Why does this feel odd and yet it is normal for boys to be in the reverse situation?

ASK YOURSELF ... About the enabling environment

Messages: Walk round any toyshop or look at a toy catalogue and check out the way the toys are organised, displayed and packaged. What does this tell you about the messages society gives our children about gender difference?

Pink and blue: Critically assess the toys and resources in your environment and think about how colour is often used to denote boy or girl. Look out for good quality natural/wooden resources and items in the full range of colours.

Bikes: Are there as many prams as there are bikes? Think about having 'girl bikes and boy prams' sessions as part of the continuous provision outdoors. This both enables girls to monopolise the bikes for a change, and raises the status of the prams. Stand back and watch as the boys assert their rights to push the buggies around the garden! Buy collaborative wheeled toys that encourage co-operation and sharing.

Images: Be aware of pictures (on puzzles, in books, puppets and so on) that reinforce gender stereotyping and balance them with those that challenge (for example, female doctor/male nurse). Where you can't find a balance, use the stereotypes to start a debate with the children.

Children's choices: Use your observation and monitoring information to offer challenge and support in the use of all your resources, such as boys dressing up and girls playing football. Be a role model and make sure you explore all available experiences yourself.

Workforce: If you are in an all-female team, think about how you can encourage fathers, grandfathers, male volunteers from primary/secondary schools and so on to get involved in your setting. This is as important for the girls as it is for the boys. If you are a mixed workforce, be aware of how gender bias may affect the way male colleagues are viewed and treated. What do you need to do as a team to ensure gender issues in the work place are addressed?

Words: Don't be afraid to talk with the children about the words and expressions that we use to denote gender. Challenge yourself aloud if you say something inappropriate, then explore with the children better ways of expressing yourself.

Role models: If you are an all-female workforce, ensure you role model physical activities. Climb up the climbing frame, crawl through the tunnel, play superheroes. Encourage male colleagues/volunteers to cook, care for the dolls, play in the home corner and have fun in the dressing-up area.

Titles: If you don't use first names for colleagues and parents, then check how the women prefer to be addressed - as Miss/Ms/Mrs. Or refer to all women as Ms, which stands for all females, just as Mr stands for all males. If we don't know a man's marital status by his title, why do we need to know a woman's?

- Anne O'Connor, Independent early years consultant currently developing equality and diversity training materials with Lancashire Sure Start Early Years and Childcare Service.


- Myers, Kate and Taylor, Hazel, with Adler, Sue and Leonard, Diana, eds (2007) Genderwatch - Still Watching. Trentham Books

- MacNaughton, Glenda (2000) Rethinking Gender in Early Childhood Education. Paul Chapman Publishing

- Holland, Penny (2003) We Don't Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years. Open University Press

- 'All About ... Gender', Nursery World, 2 May 2002

- 'All About ... Anti-discriminatory Practice', Nursery World, 3 January 2002

- See also 'More information' in Equality and Diversity, Part 1, Nursery World, 24 September

Part 3 on Age is published on 26 November

© MA Education 2019. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved