Posted on 9th May 2023

How to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom

2:08 PM, 9th May 2023
How to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom

This post is a guest blog by Olivia Dickinson from Let Toys Be Toys. 

Let Toys Be Toys is an award-winning campaign asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children's interests by promoting some toys and books as suitable for girls and others only for boys. Since 2012, we have persuaded most major UK toy retailers to drop ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs in stores. Our Let Books Be Books initiative has achieved similar success, with 11 children’s UK book publishers, including Usborne, Penguin Random House, and Hachette, agreeing to phase out gendered titles.

Of course, the real aim of the campaign is to challenge stereotypes in childhood. Children are surrounded by limiting gendered expectations even before they are born. Despite the signs in shops and the labels on books having been taken down, children are still surrounded by gender stereotypes, through the media they consume, the language they hear, the clothes they wear and the expectations society puts on them.

In the webinar for Ark Curriculum Plus, I explained how gender sterotypes have long-term effects on our subject choices at school, our career choices, our relationships as we get older and our mental health and parenting choices. And of course, what can you, as teachers and teaching assistants, do about it?

One of the key things we have found over 10 years at Let Toys Be Toys is that toys and books marketed to boys mainly have themes of action, adventure, science, space and transport, and are missing themes around caring, while toys and books marketed to girls are more focused on themes of beauty, imagination, caring, cooking and cleaning, stories about princesses or romance, feature more passive play and are missing active play.

The word clouds from our research of TV adverts aimed at children shows powerfully how girls are expected to be passive and boys active. This then has an effect on language development of boys, who don’t get as much opportunity to play in the home corner and do role play, or affects girls’ gross motor skills and spatial ability, being deterred from construction toys or outdoor play. We have also made videos of some of the TV adverts to show examples of both good practice in toy advertising as well as highlighting some things we’d love to see improved.

Often boy babies and girl babies are treated differently from birth; all of us, without meaning to, interact with children in a gendered way. The phrase ‘innocent socialisation’ has been coined to describe this. If you work in an early years setting, there are specific ways you can help yourself and your colleagues to actively challenge that innocent socialisation. By doing so, you will enable children to have a varied play diet, which contributes to their overall development and helps to open up opportunities and skills, rather than constraining children into stereotyped boxes.

Those stereotyped boxes are reflected in the facts and figures I include in the webinar about the lack of girls doing Physics A level and boys English or Art; how few men go into nursing and how few women become engineers; how 96% of prisoners are men and 75% of suicides are male.

In 2017, before RSE became statutory in state schools across England, at Let Toys Be we surveyed teachers to find out what training they had received around recognising and challenging gender stereotypes. We found that:

  • Only 19% of teachers were advised as part of their initial teacher training (ITT) to challenge gender stereotypes, and that they were not always given ways to combat stereotyping effectively.
  • A quarter of teachers said that their training reinforced, rather than challenged, gender stereotypes.
  • 8 out of 10 teachers had not been offered any training (CPD) in the previous five years about challenging gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.

In 2019, the Fawcett Society surveyed early years practitioners and classroom teachers for its Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood, and found similar results to Let Toys Be Toy’s survey. See Unlimited Potential: Report on the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood, December 2020

We surveyed teachers partly because of the success of the BBC documentary ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ about a Year 3 class that over just 6 weeks of explicitly challenging gender stereotypes initiated remarkable changes in both ability and behaviour. After just two weeks of practice with a tangram puzzle, the top 10 pupils went from all boys to five boys and five girls (watch from 51:24 to 51:40) while the boys’ observed bad behaviour went down by 57%.

The current statutory guidance for RSE regarding stereotypes is quite straightforward:

By end of Primary, as part of Respectful Relationships: ‘know what a stereotype is, and how stereotypes can be unfair, negative or destructive.’

By the end of Secondary, as part of Respectful Relationships, including friendships: ‘know how stereotypes, in particular stereotypes based on sex, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, can cause damage (e.g. how they might normalise non-consensual behaviour or encourage prejudice).’

There is also statutory guidance on understanding difference, and respecting others, and the DfE statutory guidance also says:

‘Schools should be alive to issues such as everyday sexism, misogyny, homophobia and gender stereotypes and take positive action to build a culture where these are not tolerated, and any occurrences are identified and tackled.’

At Let Toys Be Toys we advocate 10 ways to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom, which overall ensures you as teaching staff can apply a ‘whole school approach’ sexism in schools. The 10 ways are based on studies such as the NEU’s Breaking the Mould, the work the Institute of Physics have done in challenging gender stereotypes and the evidence-based research of academics such as Professors Becky Francis and Christine Skelton. All of that fed into the successful experiment for the Y3 class in the BBC documentary ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ Not only did girls’ self-esteem improve, their maths’ ability did too; not only did the boys’ good behaviour increase, their vocabulary did too.

It’s always worth remembering how gender stereotyping negatively impacts boys as much as girls; the 2009 publication, Gender issues in school – what works to improve achievement for boys and girls is a great place to start with your staff, particularly if you’re interested in getting primary age boys reading and writing well.

As I explain in the webinar, the statutory guidance is telling you what you should be doing regarding stereotypes, but a whole school approach, and Let Toys Be Toys’ 10 ways, enables you to go that much further and embed it into the ethos of your school and your practice. Gender stereotypes are not just something to teach once a year as part of RSE or PSHE, but something to actively challenge day to day.

  1. Provide a range of role models
  2. Challenge stereotypes when you hear them
  3. Look at who uses which spaces and equipment
  4. Pick other ways to divide up the children
  5. Use inclusive language
  6. Make sure there aren’t ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ jobs
  7. Think about rewards and sanctions
  8. Create a safe space
  9. Make the most of books
  10. Talk about stereotypes

Established in 2012, Let Toys Be Toys challenges gender stereotypes in childhood, especially in toy marketing, education and the media. The social media campaign is asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.