Inclusion - Damage limitation

Helen Garnett
Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Helen Garnett explores the role of early years education in preventing violence against women and girls

Gender stereotyping begins in the early years and affects behaviour and attitudes into adulthood
Gender stereotyping begins in the early years and affects behaviour and attitudes into adulthood

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today.’1

It is a sobering fact that violence against women has intensified since the outbreak of Covid-19 and has even been named the ‘Shadow Pandemic’.

Globally, one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence, and numbers are reportedly rising. Over one weekend during lockdown, calls to domestic abuse helplines in the UK went up by 65 per cent.2

Violence develops as a result of many complex factors or ‘forces’ – genes, development history, temperament, relationships, family history and community – all of which shape social and gender norms. There is also a correlation between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and violence.

What are the root causes? The Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood states that harmful stereotypes limit children and that ‘those limitations start early, hold many children back, and cause significant problems across society in later life’. Research demonstrates that gender stereotyping is ‘limiting children’s potential and causing lifelong harm’.3 What sort of lifelong harm? And is there a link to violence?

Two- to three-year-olds learn about stereotyping and behaviour from observing those around them. Crucially, children who observe gender-stereotyped behaviour are more likely to behave in a way that is gender-stereotypical, with more ‘aggressive behaviour for boys, decreases in aggressive behaviour for girls, and a marked tendency to select same-sex playmates’.4

Stereotyping can be a key factor in the development of thinking and behaviour, which may lead to dehumanisation and violence.

Crucially, when gender-stereotyped behaviour is challenged in the early years and throughout school, future violence against women and girls can be reduced.5 As practitioners, we are well aware of our general duty of care. But how mindful are we that on our watch we can take positive steps to reduce violence against women and girls? And if so, what are we doing about it?


Stereotyping is when we hold a commonly held public belief about a certain social group or individual. ‘Boys on the computer are geeks.’ ‘Girls shouldn’t play football.’

Stereotypical attitudes can appear harmless but may carry a subliminal and potentially damaging message. The harm begins when stereotyping is perceived as a ‘rule’ because rules by their very existence create limitations. A particularly harmful ‘rule’ is the gender perception that ‘men are men’ and ‘boys will be boys’. Adult men holding this view are more likely to be depressed, have little or no intimate friendships, and are three times more likely to commit suicide.6 Crucially, they are also more likely to abuse women.

By the time children reach primary school, gender stereotyping attitudes, behaviours and mindsets are embedded. Reading skills for boys suffer. Academically, girls (even by the age of six) perceive themselves to be less capable than boys at subjects where they need to be ‘smart’.

Teachers and parents’ views on this are thought-provoking. In a recent report,7 the majority of parents and early years teachers felt that treating boys and girls differently has negative impacts generally, with this disparity crucially affecting how boys are able to talk about their emotions.

Many practitioners heard phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ spoken in their setting; they experienced assumptions such as children wanting to engage in different activities according to choices based on gender, and even children being gender-segregated when lining up or for games. More worryingly, 38 per cent of practitioners had received negligible training on challenging gender stereotypes before starting their role.


What is needed is a comprehensive inclusive plan for all children, at all ages, to learn about and celebrate their masculinity and femininity, and to observe and appreciate gender differences.

Crucial groundwork needs to take place first. This includes:

  • Examining unconscious gender bias and mindsets.
  • Supporting boys’ and girls’ confidence.
  • Building whole-school awareness through education and formal training.

Examining unconscious gender bias

What traditional ideas are we holding fast to and implementing even unconsciously? We need to be aware that personal gut feeling about gender may not be reliable.

Let’s look at two types of unconscious gender bias that we may encounter in our settings.

Actively encouraging stereotypically expected behaviour

A study8 in 2002 found that practitioners actively encourage children when they engage in behaviour that is stereotypically expected; for example, girls being helpful or boys being physical: ‘Girls were reinforced for their dress, hairstyles and helping behaviour; boys received comments on their size and physical skills.’

The same study discovered that boys received more attention than girls and that practitioners’ language was heavily gendered. By the age of three, children were much more likely to play separately in toy selection, activities and playmates.

Gender attention bias

How much attention do we give girls versus boys? One study9 showed ‘a general bias in teachers’ actions that resulted in less attention to female students’. Worryingly, less-effective teachers show a larger gender bias, which correlates with lower scores for girls in standardised tests.

Our perception of how much attention we give boys and girls may not be accurate. In a 198510 study, teachers watched a film of a classroom discussion and were asked who talked more in class, boys or girls. The general perception was that the girls talked more, despite the fact that the boys talked three times as much.

Talking recently with a group of early years, primary and secondary teachers, the consensus was that girls did indeed speak out less throughout school and were generally less confident than the boys. Clearly it is of extreme importance that we carefully review practice in terms of to whom we give our attention in the classroom and why.


Our beliefs about gender can impact our behaviour, our dreams, our career and our life. We need to be clear about any limiting beliefs so that we can make choices that carry no gender bias or filter.

Carry out the quiz in the box, overleaf. Add up your total to discover your gender mindset.

Raising awareness in this way is crucial in tearing down gender bias and mindset and setting the path for objective and unbiased practice.


There is a level playing field regarding boys’ and girls’ confidence until around the age of three, when gender filters start to take hold and boys’ testosterone levels rise. There is a well-documented and pronounced dip in girls’ confidence between the age of eight and 14, when confidence falls from 71 per cent to 38 per cent. For the majority, this gap does not close. By contrast, during puberty, boys get another huge boost of testosterone that increases their risk-taking but may well reduce their ability to think about others and empathise.

Building and supporting children’s confidence is key to their future wellbeing.

We do this by ensuring that, along with emotional warmth and relationships of trust and mutual regard, children are provided with:

  • an environment of inclusive listening, with both girls and boys encouraged to listen and attend carefully to others
  • a strong sense of control over their own learning
  • plenty of opportunities for intellectual challenge.

Children’s confidence is of paramount importance as it lays the foundation for so many other skills: those of self-regulation, creativity, risk-taking, the ability to face challenges and thinking critically.


For the setting

Awareness is key in changing the statistics that haunt our headlines each and every day. Early years must provide interventions that are gender-transformative in approach, challenging harmful social norms and identifying and encouraging positive norms in an enabling environment.

These interventions need to:

  • review hidden and unconscious biases
  • review any hidden discriminatory/sexist language
  • review gender attention bias – to whom do we give our attention and why?
  • implement regular training on challenging gender stereotypes
  • recognise the power of mentorship as an effective way to build children’s (particularly girls’) confidence.

For children

Review, challenge and amend the following:

  • Circle times: Who speaks out more? Why? When? Challenge/think beyond social norms.
  • The range of activities and choices offered: are these based on children’s ungendered preferences and skills?
  • Books and resources: are children offered a range of perspectives – male and female nurses, firefighters, farmers, doctors, etc.?

For parents/care providers/wider family

  • Raising awareness and understanding of stereotyping via literature and workshops.


The first five years of a child’s life are the most critical of years, when brain architecture is built and embedded. Early experiences build the foundation for the brain’s future functioning and performance – for life! Gender-based violence is a result of flawed perspective. It is a grave human rights violation and must be treated as such. A vital part of the urgent action required is early intervention – ensuring that our youngest citizens are not given these false perspectives in the first place.

This is a societal problem, not an individual one, and therefore it requires communal intervention. There is little or no point in the early years forging ahead with an effective programme if this is not continued into primary school and beyond. We need a ‘pass it on’ attitude, where each sector supports the previous sector’s work. In this way, the green shoots of equality and justice formed in the early years can be nurtured and supported right the way through to adulthood.

Helen Garnett is the author of Developing Empathy in the Early Years: A Guide for Practitioners, (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)which received the NW Professional Book Award in 2018.

Boys’ reading skills – best practice at Tadpoles Nursery, Chelsea, London

Boys’ attitudes to books and reading have undergone a positive change at Tadpoles Nursery. As a result of observing boys’ lack of confidence in reading skills, staff asked all the children to audit the books in the setting, categorising them by those they enjoyed and those they didn’t. The boys’ choices were largely non-fiction books, and these are now placed around the setting, enticing them to pick up and enjoy them in their play. Books about diggers and dumpers are among construction toys. Books on reptiles are next to Tadpole’s tame tortoises, named Trouble and Strife.

Natalie Going, manager, says, ‘Although boys are often categorised as the reluctant reader, this may be due to the fact they are often given the wrong material. We find the boys are naturally more drawn to non-fiction. Boys and girls can do equally well providing there are a variety of books and print available – fiction, non-fiction, comics and a wide range of topics. Small “tweaks” in approach can create a big impact. Boys’ confidence about books is strong at Tadpoles because boys’ natural interests are catered for in their reading choices.’

Gender mindset quiz


Try this quiz to gain insight into your own gender mindset. Answer each question with the following: Strongly agree – 5; Agree – 4; Not sure – 3; Disagree – 2; Strongly disagree – 1

  1. Do you feel that women are limited in their ability to succeed in life and work because of their gender?
  2. Do you feel that gender norms and stereotypes may negatively impact how women are perceived in their lives?
  3. Do you feel that women must fit into expected gender modes of behaviour in their work and lives?
  4. Do you feel that women’s gender traits and characteristics are not valued as strengths in the workplace?
  5. Do you believe that women will be paid less and given fewer opportunities to progress because of their gender?

Results for gender mindset

20-25: Negative

You strongly believe that women find it much harder to progress, be successful in work and have fewer opportunities in their careers.

15-19: Mostly negative

You believe that women find it hard to progress or be successful in work and may have fewer opportunities in their careers.

10-14: Ambivalent

You believe that women’s work or success may be impacted by being female and that although women can succeed on their own terms, they may not always be taken seriously in their work or life.

6-9: Predominantly positive

You believe that feminine traits can be valuable strengths in certain circumstances and situations and are usually an advantage for women’s work and success.

5: Positive

You strongly believe that feminine traits and characteristics are valuable strengths in all circumstances and situations, that being female is an advantage for women in work and life, and that women do not need to comply with male modes of behaviour.

How did you do? Discuss your findings with staff members, compare results and talk about them. Discuss the cultural and family traditions in which you were raised. Explore where your ideas and beliefs may be affecting your practice.


  2. Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, March 2020
  3. Unlimited Potential: The Final Report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood, 2020
  4. Fagot et al, 1986
  5. What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls
  6. The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK, and Mexico by Brian Heilman, Gary Barker and Alexander Harrison, 2017
  7. Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood, 2020
  8. Chick K et al (2002). ‘The impact of child care on gender role development and gender stereotypes’, Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(3)
  9. Marina Bassi et al (2016). Under the ‘Cloak of Invisibility’: Gender Bias in Teaching Practices and Learning Outcomes
  10. Marina Bassi et al (2018). ‘Failing to notice? Uneven teachers’ attention to boys and girls in the classroom’, Journal of Labor Economics, 7(1)
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