Gender equality starts young

Speaking to children through gender-neutral language might help to solve gender inequality, writes Ilona Harding-Roberts

Ilona Harding-Roberts

Children seem to be subject to gender stereotypes from the moment they start schoolPixabay

When you think of primary school, your mind probably jumps to a place full of children finger-painting, licking crayons, and playing tag at break. They were the golden days, the days of freedom and fun, the days you could gallop across the playground on your imaginary dragon and nobody thought you were weird.

Yet BBC Two documentary ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Schools Go Gender Free?’ unearthed some alarming points about the way children understand gender, and such discoveries suggest that primary school is not such a place of freedom after all.

“We should be focusing on opening our young people up to the complicated, important discussions of gender”

The show was presented by Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, who believes there is very little difference between the brains of boys and girls. He began by conducting interviews with the children, asking questions such as “are men and women equal?”. Every girl but one said boys were “better”, with one girl arguing that “men are better at being in charge”. Meanwhile, a boy in the class demonstrated some keen political knowledge: boys “get into president easier, don’t they?”. Appearance was also brought up, with another girl answering “girls are better at being pretty”. All pretty worrying findings, particularly given that the kids were just seven years old.

Dr Abdelmoneim’s argument is that the problem is one of nurture rather than nature. In an attempt to combat this, he began putting up signs in the classroom that read ‘girls are strong’ and ‘boys are sensitive’; he paid attention to the books recommended to the children, disposing of any that featured submissive female characters or aggressive male ones; and he corrected the way the teacher addressed the children, eliminating ‘mate’ for boys, ‘darling’ for girls. Essentially, he focused on all those little parts of everyday life we’d not think twice about.

I can see close similarities between the children in the documentary and my own brother and sister, who are both aged nine. While I’ve heard my sister talk about how pretty the other girls are, my brother has never mentioned another boy’s appearance; instead he is concerned with competing over strength and speed. Obviously, my own experiences are incredibly limited, and Dr Abdelmoneim’s study wasn’t perfect either; his study is small-scale and focuses on a class of predominantly white children in just one part of the country, so the research needs to be expanded.

This children's book by Lego is one of only a handful that try to subvert prevailing stereotypesInstagram: lettoysbetoys

But this appears to be a national problem that runs right up to the top of society: earlier this year, Theresa May mentioned “boy jobs and girl jobs” in an interview on The One Show. Boys love bins, apparently – it must be a genetic thing. Her comments were particularly bizarre given that she is only the second female prime minister Britain has had; her role should surely be to break down gender stereotypes, not reinforce them. Yet it would seem that the problem is not just present in schools, it’s so widespread that it is even being sustained by our leaders.

The findings also speak to nationwide statistics; a poll by analysts Mintel revealed that 44% of children identified jobs like ‘plumber, builder or electrician’ as ‘for boys’. They also linked it to the divide in subject choices, with boys consistently preferring maths, IT and science, and girls widely preferring humanities-based subjects.

Yet the issue of gender in schools remains controversial, and not just because of the impact on children’s self-esteem and later life choices. This year, a couple removed their six-year-old child from school because a boy in his class began coming to school wearing a dress. The story hit the national press, and Mr Rowe, the boy’s father, was quoted as saying: “Our concerns were raised when our son came back home from school saying he was confused as to why and how a boy was now a girl.” Their argument was based on the ‘harm’ it caused to other children, and the fact that the school had failed to consult all parents. But surely we do far more harm to children by sheltering, rather than exposing them to diversity.

Study after study has shown that polarising gender and attaching stereotypes to children from an early age is damaging to both boys and girls in their later lives; many have linked this to the lack of women in high-power jobs, and the fact that the biggest killer of men under 45 is suicide. So the question remains: would having gender-neutral language in schools go any way to helping create a more equal society?


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Ultimately, if it would help to alleviate problems like these, then I’m all in. We should be focusing on opening our young people up to the complicated, important discussions of gender, and embracing different ideas about something that has traditionally been such a polarised issue. From Dr Abdelmoneim’s study, at least, it seems that embracing gender-neutrality in schools holds some answers to the very real problem of gender inequality in society