“Future trophy wife” vs “Ladies’ man” – how Lifting Limits challenges gender stereotyping in schools
Updated: Jan 28
Is it possible to change children’s attitudes about the differences between girls and boys? Yes, says Lifting Limits – a non-profit organisation that runs an effective education programme for challenging gender stereotypes. It made an impact on children, teachers and parents at five schools in Camden last year; now it’s running in 14 new schools. Co-founder Caren Gestetner talks to Outspoken about unconscious bias, quizzing kids on football and dolls and how to deal with relatives who take a more traditional approach…
I remember the day my daughter came home from nursery and said: “Pink is for girls, blue is for boys.”
In primary school micro things started happening that pointed in that same direction. My two daughters and their friends would tell me about things going unchallenged in the playground, or how the science groups were only named after men, or they’d say: “My PE teacher said to man up.” I started noticing all the little ways that gender stereotypes were being reinforced below the radar at school – not deliberately, but in the words that were being used, in the assumptions, in books and the curriculum. This also dovetailed with my doing a masters at the LSE (London School of Economics) in Gender, Policy and Inequalities.
Schools can be unaware about perpetuating gender stereotypes. They’ve got equalities policies in place; they think they’ve done gender equality. But they don’t always notice the ways the school environment can add to the messaging that children are already exposed to outside the school gates through toys, clothing, books, TV and games.
The overt messages children are usually given at school – “You can be whatever you want to be” or “Anyone can do anything” – don’t necessarily tally with what they see and hear around them. The artists, inventors and explorers they hear about are predominantly men – generally dead white men. So children aren’t seeing other possibilities.
ON REACTIONS FROM CHILDREN & TEACHERS
So many inequalities can be traced back to the gender stereotypes children are surrounded by from a young age. That’s why my colleague Rachel Hermer and I started Lifting Limits.
It was important to develop a whole-school approach so that the positive messaging wasn’t undermined anywhere in the school environment. That involved creating a curriculum for gender equality.
We drew on a range of evidence including research from the Institute of Physics, the Women & Equalities Committee report that links gender stereotypes to the likelihood of children being victims or perpetrators of sexual violence and the Children’s Society study about children having lower wellbeing if their friendship group adheres to gender stereotypes.
First we ran a year-long pilot in five primary schools in the London Borough of Camden. We saw from doing a gender audit in each school how male-dominated the curriculum was and how the library books, the language of both children and adults and the way younger kids played were all gendered.
Interestingly, from our pupil surveys we learned that the youngest children had the most gendered attitudes. They also travelled the greatest distance over the school year in terms of changing their attitudes. There was a shift away from them saying that certain things were for certain people – like playing with a toy kitchen – and from them seeing occupations like being a nurse or a builder as traditionally gendered. The early-years children went from 22% agreeing that football is “for everyone” (rather than “for boys” or “for girls”) to 70% at the end. The 5- to 7-year-olds went from 30% to 59% agreeing that dolls are “for everyone”.
There was also progress in the range of possibilities children could imagine for other people and themselves, for example a 75% increase in the number of boys (aged 7 to 11) who envisage that they could become a teacher – a traditionally female-dominated profession.
Among the 7- to 11-year-olds, when we asked if there are more similarities or differences between girls and boys there was a 22% swing towards “more similarities”.
By the end there was less polarisation between girls and boys, more mixing. “Now we play with the boys sometimes and it actually feels very fun,” a year 4 girl told us.
That’s wonderful, because we want to reduce the separation fed by gender stereotypes.
One boy said: “I’m probably treating girls a bit better than I was before.”
With both children and teachers there was increased confidence about challenging gender stereotypes. It was a live topic with the staff, and the changes in children’s attitudes were clear from the work displayed on the walls, from their workbooks, from their discussions.
ON PARENTS & UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
We always try to engage parents and carers. Through our workshops and resources we’re aiming to give them confidence, language and strategies along with an understanding of why it’s important to pick up on gender stereotypes and how to address them.
With older children, to some extent we’re trying to get at their subconscious. By the time they’re age 7 to 11, they know what the right statement is – “Anyone can do anything” – even though that doesn’t always tally with what they really believe or feel.
The idea is to develop children’s critical thinking so they can identify a gender stereotype and say: “Not all girls like this or that” or “I don’t have to like football just because I’m a boy” – so they are able to see people as individuals with their own preferences rather than conforming to what they “should” like.
The ubiquity of gender stereotypes is the background for all of us.
We’re not aware that we have unconscious bias – that’s the nature of it. It’s just our normal.
Even the best teachers are not immune from the unconscious bias we all have, and most welcome support in challenging gender stereotypes in school. Often they’ll say: “It’s pretty good here”, but when we show them examples of what we see in schools, there’s recognition that it could also happen there.
There is such an overlap between gender stereotypes and sex and relationships stuff. In some workshops I show parents a still from the music video Blurred Lines, which is a bit old now! It’s a powerful image: nearly naked women dancing around men in suits. It’s important to question with children: “Why are the women wearing hardly any clothes?” That discussion is just as important with boys.
ON HOW PARENTS CAN CHALLENGE GENDER STEREOTYPES & THEIR OWN RELATIVES
The first thing for parents is becoming aware of gender stereotypes and their limiting effects on children’s choices and aspirations. When you come across stereotypes with your children – whether it’s something they’ve heard in the playground or seen in a toy shop or on a billboard – it’s important to question those stereotypes so they don’t just become what children learn as “normal”.
Look at the everyday stuff surrounding children that sets up division or opposition between girls and boys. Think about what that’s teaching our children at a really impressionable age when they’re just learning about the world and their place in it.
With the covers of books for young children, you can often see straight off by the colours and themes who they’re aimed at.
There’s also the messaging on some children’s clothing – even for babies – such as: “Born to be spoiled”, “Born to wear diamonds”, “Future trophy wife” or: “Built tough like my dad”, “Here comes trouble”, “Ladies’ man”, “Lock up your daughters”.
Gender stereotypes you come across in books, TV and magazines are a great opportunity to discuss these issues with children. For example, why do so many TV programmes show fathers as incompetent around the house (Phil from Modern Family, Daddy Pig from Peppa Pig, Homer from the Simpsons)? Is this fair? Is it true of all dads?
Some comments from other adults merit challenging in front of your kids – and sometimes require discretion as to how direct you can be!
Gendered comments to children from well-meaning relatives can be tricky to deal with. If girls are frequently complimented on their appearance, for example, it can leave them thinking that this is what they are valued for above other attributes. If someone tells your daughter: “Your hair looks gorgeous today”, replying: “And didn’t you build such a good tower today as well!” is a roundabout route to getting the message across to your daughter without causing offence.
It’s not easy. But it’s all about reducing the importance of gender as a defining characteristic in children’s lives for the benefit of girls, boys, everyone.