Brief description of the issue
To break down gender stereotypes with children, we have to go against some beliefs that are deeply rooted in our daily life, especially those that have been brought by colonization such as heteronormativity and strict gender roles in the household. Family being the very first socialization agent, it is important to work with parents to break down gender stereotypes, to make sure this work is continuing at home and to explain to parents the strategies used by the school or the organization.
This is some content that you can discuss with parents, grandparents and other caretakers with whom students interact regularly. These learnings can be shared formally during, for instance, a report evening organized for parents at the school. They can also be shared informally, through a discussion organized over a meal or a end-of-school year celebration, for example. You know your community best!
Youth endorsing gender stereotypes the most are the ones who drop out of school the most.
Indeed, girls and boys see and experience school differently because their socialization is different. Knowing these differences better allows us to take action more efficiently, because leaving school early is also the result of difficult relationships with the institution that translates differently according to gender (Réseau Réussite Montréal, 2018).
It is important to state that the gender stereotypes we are referring to here are the ones inherited from european society and imposed on First Peoples through colonization. These stereotypes are the ones associated with higher school dropout rates. The reappropriation of Mi’gMaq traditional gender roles hasn’t been shown to have an effect on school dropout rates. In fact, more cultural content and culturally appropriated teaching practices would contribute to indigenous students’ academic achievement (Manningham, Lanthier, Wawanoloath & Connelly, 2011).
What is a gender stereotype?
According to the United Nations, “a gender stereotype is a generalized view or preconception about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by women and men.” However, the most recent research in neuroscience indicates that there is no difference, at birth, between girls’ and boys’ brains (Vidal, 2015). Differences observed are therefore socially induced by family, the media, school, advertising and society in general.
What is the link with school retention?
Girls’ and boys’ experience of school varies because our expectations from them are different (and stereotypical). We generally expect boys to be…
- very active and occupying a lot of space;
- interested in sports and competition;
- interested in engines;
However, the numerous social standards associated with boys lead them to become less engaged in school. For them, it is less acceptable to show interest in school work (among other things) and they show a playing culture more ingrained than girls (Réseau Réussite Montréal, 2018). At the elementary level, they are looking for approval from their peers by being unruly and by defying the teachers’ authority (Gagnon, 1999). In order to conform to masculine stereotypes, boys are staying away from all feminine stereotypes and those who don’t show masculine behaviours experience more bullying (Gagnon, 1999). For instance, reading being perceived as a feminine activity, fewer boys than girls are interested in reading.
These behaviours (dislike of reading, defying authority, being unruly) are quite incompatible with school success. Boys dropping out are doing it for very specific reasons: suspension, exclusion, researching fun outside from school and the desire of starting a career. These are very visible causes, mainly associated with confrontation and a self-competency feeling, more present within boys (Réseau Réussite Montréal, 2018).
As for girls, we generally expect from them to be…
- calm and muted;
- clean and conscious of their looks;
- caring for others;
- invested in “nannying” or “mothering” activities;
Social norms associated with girls lead them to engage more at school: they measure their value by their academic achievement a lot (Gagnon, 1999) and have a broader reading experience than boys. It is, however, important to note that masculine stereotypes being more gratifying, boys tend to endorse them more than girls, to whom we present more limiting stereotypes (Réseau Réussite Montréal, 2018).
If some feminine stereotypes and behaviours (submission, reading, calm, etc.) are compatible with school success, girls who endorse gender stereotypes such as having a low self-esteem, caring for others, “mothering” activities, and others, are more at risk of dropping out of school than those who don’t buy into these stereotypes. Girls who leave school early are doing it for reasons that are very different from those cited by boys and that are aligned with gender stereotypes: the arrival of a child, family adversity, personal problems. These are very personal causes that are not very visible (Réseau Réussite Montréal, 2018).
Children first learn from their parents by imitating them. Their parents are role models, and they serve as examples. Children are noticing who is taking care of the laundry, the cooking, who is helping them with their homework, who is picking them up at school, etc. They learn from their parents’ professional and leisure activities. Yet, these activities are often unequally and differently shared if you are a man or a woman. Family helps children learn gender stereotypes.
This learning happens not only by what a child sees, but also by what he is being told. Who has never heard “Big boys don’t cry!” or “Girls don’t fight!”? On top of that, parents are often more demanding from girls to clean the house or set the table. Parents grumble when boys don’t do the same, but they will often end up doing it for them. Girls receive more requests to be calm, obedient and responsible. As for boys, we expect them to be successful and autonomous in the activities we are proposing them (La ligue de l’enseignement, 2011).
It is therefore of the utmost importance, as parents and “cultural transmitters”, that we value a diversity of female and male role models to show our children that they can be themselves, regardless if their interests are conformed with gender stereotypes. We’re talking about their academic achievement, after all!
Action strategies for parents
How, as parents, can we limit our children’s endorsement of gender stereotypes? Here are a few action strategies and areas on which you have the power to act:
- Toys: toy catalogues confine girls within pages associated with household work (kitchenette, ironing, sweeping…), caring and mothering (dolls, strollers, changing tables…), and looks (makeup, jewelry, princesses costumes). In the same way, these catalogues lead boys to characters and imagery of warriors or conquerors, while at the same time opening the doors of science and technology (telescope, experimental kit…) (La ligue de l’enseignement, 2011). Toy stores are often divided by gender and toys themselves are often stereotypical. To go against this, choose toys that come from nature or that are not manufactured and propose a diversity of toys to your children.
- Books for children: children’s literature shows a lot of gender stereotypes, the most popular cliché certainly being the princess passively waiting to be saved by a brave prince charming. Indigenous peoples are almost never represented in mainstream children’s literature, and when they are, let’s think of Pocahontas, it is in a very colonialist and stereotypical way. Statistically, there are much less female heroes than male heroes. There, again, female characters are left to do the household work as male characters are working outside. Finally, the cherry on top, women often wear accessories linked to the household or to coquetry (apron, mirror, ribbons) as men are identified with intellectual attributes (glasses, newspapers) (La ligue de l’enseignement, 2011).
- Clothes: clothes and shoes dictate a specific body posture for girls and boys. Shoes such as high heels, flip flops and some sandals lacking support for the ankle limit little girls’ movement. Very early, little girls are hypersexualized with seductive outfits that were usually restricted to women (thong, nylon stocking under shorts, high heels, slim jeans, short skirts, neckline…). They remove their hair and put makeup on at an increasingly early age. Advertisement, TV shows, the musical industry, video clips and magazines targeted at young girls incite them to emulate those seduction models promoted in the public space. We encourage them to become good-looking dolls and not engineers or politicians (La ligue de l’enseignement, 2011).
- Leisure activities: often unconsciously, we discourage children from trying activities or showing behaviours associated with the opposite gender. This fear of not conforming is also visible when we register children in extracurricular activities. When a child wants to practice an activity that is not aligned with gender stereotypes, what is his or her parents’ reaction? Are they supportive or trying to discourage the child? Which leisure activities are parents choosing for their sons and daughters? It is less common to recommend karate, hockey, soccer, guitar or drum lessons to a girl, just as we rarely propose figure skating, singing or swimming to a boy. In that sense, we prefer activities involving grace, posture, elegance and esthetics in movement (ballet dancing, horseback riding, synchronized swimming, gymnastics) for girls, as for boys, we prefer sports described as traditionally masculine, such as football, hockey or karate, that involve characteristics associated with boys, such as using strength, fighting, give or receive punches, taking physical risks and competing (La ligue de l’enseignement, 2011).
La ligue de l’enseignement. (2011). Filles et garçons: cassons les clichés [Girls and Boys: let’s break down cliches]. Fédération de Paris. https://fal44-viescolaire.jimdo.com/app/download/8329459385/parents.pdf?t=1427377781
Manningham, S., Lanthier, M., Wawanoloath, M. & Connelly, J.-A. (2011). Cadre de référence en vue de soutenir la persévérance scolaire des élèves autochtones à la Commission scolaire de l’Or-et-des-Bois [Frame of reference to support indigenous students’ academic perseverance at the Commission scolaire de l’Or-et-des-Bois]. Laboratoire de recherche pour le soutien des communautés (Université du Québec en Abitibi‐Témiscamingue). https://www.uqat.ca/telechargements/info_entites/manningham_et_al_nov2011.pdf
Réseau Réussite Montréal (2018). Pour une égalité filles-garçons en persévérance scolaire [For a gender equal school perseverance]. http://www.reseaureussitemontreal.ca/dossiers-thematiques/egalite-filles-garcons-reussite-scolaire/
Secrétariat à la Condition féminine. (2018). Qu’est-ce qu’un stéréotype sexuel ? [What is a gender stereotype?], Portail sans stéréotypes. http://www.scf.gouv.qc.ca/sansstereotypes/quest-ce-quun-stereotype/
Vidal, C. (2015). Nos cerveaux, tous pareils, tous différents ! [Our brains, all alike, all different!]. Laboratoire de l’Égalité, Éditions Beli.
Vidal, C. (2017). Cerveau, sexe et préjugés [Brain, sex and prejudices], Dans Cossette, L., Cerveau, hormones et sexe. Des différences en question (p. 9-28). Les éditions du remue-ménage.