Unit 7 Challenging gender stereotypes

Challenging gender stereotypes in the classroom begins with first questioning our own assumptions around gender. We have all been subject to particular influences throughout our lives which shape our attitudes surrounding gender. These may include: parental attitudes, schooling, peer groups, ideas encountered in further education and social contacts.  Thinking stereotypically means assuming that a group of people who share some characteristics also share certain attributes. In other words, when someone assumes something about you based on one particular aspect of your identity. Often biassed and stereotypical thinking lead to us making irrational leaps of logic and using generalised thinking.

Have a think about the following questions to reflect on your own practise (National Education Union, 2013):

  • Is it more acceptable for girls to cry than boys?
  • Is there anything about the organisation in your classroom that might reinforce gender stereotypes – e.g. are there girls toys or boys books?
  • How do you line up your children?
  • Do you address girls and boys differently?
  • Are there different sanctions in place for boys and girls?
  • Do you interact more with the girls than the boys?
  • Are those interactions different?
  • Can you think of any books (or other resources) that you have used that challenge gender stereotypes – e.g., which feature confident girls and caring boys?
  • What other things could you do to make children more aware that we should never feel limited by our gender?

We all have biases. The trick is to be aware of them and to challenge yourself when you feel them operating. Self-Reflexivity involves “a dialogue with self about our fundamental assumptions, values, and ways of interacting. In this dialogue, we question our core beliefs and our understanding of particular events” (Cunliffe & Jun, 2005). This is important in terms of exploring our experience and what we can bring to teaching.  By examining and enquiring into our social and institutional context, self-reflexivity allows us to overcome “structural constraints” which can be translated to the classroom and students.

Whilst being aware of stereotypes and our own biases is the first step to breaking these down, it is now important to become aware of different ways to actively challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom.

What kindergarteners taught me about gender | Batya Greenwald | TEDxCU

Challenging gender stereotypes: early childhood, storytelling & literature

In early childhood, practically challenging stereotypes according to Cathy Nutbrown (2012) involves:

  • Emphasising gender issues throughout teacher training;
  • Recognizing the impact of families on children’s constructs of gender;
  • Hiring both men and women to work in settings;
  • Monitoring the ways in which children show their knowledge about men and women, and girls and boys, in their gendered play;
  • Taking into consideration the possible constraining effects of gendered play on learning.

Traditional fairy tales and stories often reinforce limiting conceptions of masculinity and femininity, which influence children’s own ideas and beliefs surrounding gender, especially at a young age. However, they can also be used as tools to challenge stereotypes in the classroom and encourage critical thinking.

A study carried out by Meland (2020) details how the reimagining of the traditional fairy tale, Princess and the Pea, provided a window into exploring and challenging gender roles. After viewing an alternative version of the story, where the princess was represented as strong and brave, and the King represented as vain and feminine, the teachers were able to observe lower gender-stereotypical behaviour amongst the children. Medland points out that whilst a “gender-a-typical” fairy tale, such as the Dybwikdans version of the Princess and the Pea, can play a vital role in helping children to challenge their views on stereotypes, many children are not able to do this on their own. It is therefore important for teachers to step in and help the children to understand through follow up questions and activities.

Similarly, Wee et. al (2017), released a study on a number of storytelling sessions of traditional fairy tales and their alternative versions followed by follow up discussions and activities. The study revealed that, by being asked thought-provoking questions like ‘If Snow White were not pretty, would the dwarves have accepted her?’, the children were able to use critical and logical thinking abilities to reveal prejudice and gender stereotypes prevalent in the stories.

By choosing books that challenge gender stereotypes and incorporating them into literacy schemes of work, children are encouraged to identify ‘stereotypical’ characters in other stories. For young children especially, it is important to highlight the moments when a book challenges or perpetuates stereotypes and enquires into how this affects the character. With older age groups, as a teacher you could incite discussions on stereotypes in the media and whether these influence our behaviour, knowingly or unknowingly (National Education Union, 2013).

Challenging gender stereotypes: communication, language & role models.

According to Lifting Limits, whilst language can be a powerful tool in challenging gender stereotypes, it can also aid in perpetuating them.  To strive for the former, here are some tips and points to think about from Jillian Star Teaching & National Education Union :

  • Rather than addressing your students as “Boys and Girls”, aim to use more inclusive and gender neutral terminology such as: students, friends, learners, children. This method is not only applicable to communication directed at students, but also when referring to other people. An example of this would be when referring to certain professions. Instead of addressing a Doctor as ‘he’ or a Nurse as ‘she’, try using neutral pronouns like ‘they/them’.
  • When grouping students for activities, use other qualifiers instead of gender. There is a wide range of options here and some examples could include: anybody with an A in their name line up; students with an older sibling take a turn; or children with a birthday in June, you may line up. Using these rather than gender helps to reaffirm the things we have in common rather than highlighting the differences between genders.
  • When you hear children perpetuating gender stereotypes, it is not only important to correct them but perhaps most important to initiate discussions. Enquiry into this type of behaviour allows children to challenge their own use of language and build on their critical thinking skills. Asking additional questions such as ‘is it because people think girls aren’t strong enough?’ or questioning where ideas about ‘girls’ things and boys’ things’ come from can lead to powerful shifts in thinking.

Using people (particularly women) who challenge gender stereotypes as role models is a great way to challenge assumptions and entrenched ideas. Using a range of role models, both in class and external visitors, can inspire children to counter stereotypes. Ask students if it’s surprising to see a woman or man doing this particular job. Talk about what they like about what they do and how they achieved their goals.

The Anti-Fairytale of Gender Stereotyping

Who inspires you? Why heroes, role models, and mentors matter | Dyan deNapoli | TEDxDrewMiddleSchool