Brief description of the issue
From the moment they are born until the age of about 7 years old, children construct their gender identity, meaning they are starting to model what it means to be a boy or a girl (Boyd and Bee, 2015). They develop these schemes by looking not only at their parents and siblings, but also by learning from other adults (educators, for example), from books, TV shows, etc. (Amboulé Abath, 2009). Therefore, it is very important to make sure that children are in contact early enough with a diversity of role models, male and female, doing different jobs and presenting different characteristics.
Why do we need to showcase a diversity of role models?
Young children learn a lot by observation of the people they interact with. Indeed, educators and other adults have an important role to play in a child’s learning of gender norms and roles. If we keep reinforcing gender stereotypes by presenting very traditional role models to children (for example, women in caring, cleaning and cooking roles, and men in active, working and hands-on roles), they will naturally see these behaviours as “normal”, as what is expected from a boy or a girl, and will see as « abnormal » people challenging that norm or differing from it. On the other hand, when children are exposed to as many women as men performing traditionally gendered roles (firefighters, plumbers, stay-at-home parents, nurses, etc.), they tend to learn that a person can do or be anything, regardless of their gender.
Am I already presenting a variety of role models?
The vast majority of educators wants to treat every child the same, boy or girl, and truly believe that they provide all children with the same opportunities. It is probably every educator’s wish that every child they work with can realize his or her full potential. However, we sometimes contribute to reinforcing gender stereotypes by presenting traditional role models to children, most of the time without noticing it. So, how can we assess the role models we are currently presenting to children? Here are a few guiding questions you can use :
- How many male and female characters have been involved in the games we played and stories we read today?
- Where these characters in traditional roles for their gender?
- When I talk about domestic and caring task, am I also referring to children’s fathers?
- When I talk about work and hands-on housework, am I also referring to children’s mothers?
- Am I inviting as many men as women from the community to activities with children?
- Are these guests in traditional roles or not?
By asking yourself these simple questions upfront, you can modify your activities or find inspiring role models that are challenging gender stereotypes and that would be available to come to your workplace for a short activity with your group.
Common gender roles
When we think about gender stereotypes and how they can limit our children’s aspirations, we often think of career interests. While we definitely want children to be able to picture themselves in any career regardless of their gender, there are other gender roles that can affect them as an early age and that we can tackle directly in early childhood:
- Sports : as some of them are highly associated with gender stereotypes (for example, hockey or ballet), others are more gender-neutral and could be presented to children to bring boys and girls to play sport together: swimming, soccer, ultimate frisbee, spikeball, etc.
- Leisure activities : calm activities, such as drawing, painting and reading, and motor activities, such as construction blocks, trucks, and, to some extent, video games, are respectively associated with girls and boys. It is important that boys and girls alike learn to play these games as they develop different skills, but it is also possible to mix them and invent a new activity that would involve things that boys and girls are more traditionally interested in while allowing them to experiment new things.
- Culture : when looking at TV shows, movies, music groups, artists, etc., we can easily see which group, boys or girls, is targeted. It is important to find common grounds in girls’ and boys’ interests in culture instead of focusing on highly gendered cultural activities.
Which questions can we ask children to foster reflection and critical thought?
Of course, gendered socialization doesn’t happen because of parents and educators only. Books, movies, TV shows, advertisements and society all have a big role to play in this process. It is then normal that even young children have passions and interests that align with their gender and it is not a problem. Our role, as educators, is to bring awareness to them that every child can like what he or she wants and that no one should be teased about it. We can also talk about the acceptance of differences and the curiosity towards someone else’s interests with them.
Here are a few discussion questions you can ask children when doing a stereotypical activity with them:
- Can boys and girls like [this person/artist]?
- Can boys and girls alike become [this profession]? Do you know someone / a man / a woman who practises [this job]?
- Can boys and girls play this sport? Do you know someone / a man / a woman who plays this sport?
AMBOULÉ ABATH, Anastasie (2009). Étude qualitative portant sur les rapports égalitaires (garçons et filles) en service de garde, Université Laval, 140 pages.
BOYD, Denise et BEE, Helen (2015). L’enfance : Les âges de la vie, édition abrégée, 584 pages.