Challenging gender stereotypes: a whole school approach

The new RSE curriculum requires primary schools to teach children what gender stereotypes are but how and why should they be challenged? Olivia Dickinson recommends some practical approaches and useful resources

Author details

Olivia Dickinson has 20 years’ experience in children’s media, across Amazon, the BBC, Nickelodeon and Sky Kids.

She has extensive expertise in how to challenge inequalities in childhood and education, including as a key member of the...

When, in 2017, the BBC showed a fascinating two part documentary called ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?', one of the biggest takeaways for me was the reaction to the documentary among the ‘Primary Education’ community on social media.

The programme showed a mini experiment, over just six weeks, challenging gender stereotypes held among Year 3 children in an English school.

I noticed the reactions particularly because I’m a campaigner for challenging gender stereotypes in childhood and have trained current and trainee teachers in how – and why – to challenge gender stereotypes.

Teachers who watched the programme were keen to implement the same approach in their own classrooms, but didn’t always know where to start. Despite there being over 20 years’ worth of research into the benefits of challenging gender stereotypes in terms of educational outcomes, teachers have not been given the resources and skills to do so.

What about teacher training?

Let Toys Be Toys carried out an online survey of teachers and educators across the UK in the couple of months after the programme first aired, to find out what training teachers had received around recognising and challenging gender stereotypes.

Of the 370 respondents, they found:

  • only 19% of teachers were advised as part of their initial teacher training (ITT) to challenge gender stereotypes, and that they were not always given ways to combat stereotyping effectively
  • a quarter of teachers said that their training reinforced, rather than challenged, gender stereotypes
  • 80% of teachers had not been offered any training (continuing professional development/CPD) in the previous five years about challenging gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.

By explicitly challenging gender stereotypes you can also initiate remarkable changes in both ability and behaviour.

In 2019, the Fawcett Society surveyed early years practitioners and classroom teachers for its Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood, and found similar results.

  • In their initial training, only half of practitioners received substantial training on how to challenge gender stereotypes.
  • For four in ten (38%) it was limited to an occasional reference, or was not present at all.
  • In their current role, four in ten (41%) practitioners had received no CPD on gender stereotypes and a further 13% only received relevant CPD more than five years ago.

(Source: Unlimited Potential: Report on the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood, December 2020)

With the new RSE curriculum becoming statutory from September 2021, all primary school teachers will soon be teaching pupils about what gender stereotypes are but, as these two surveys show, it is unlikely your staff – or you! – will have had adequate training on how and why to challenge gender stereotypes, and how they affect the whole curriculum, a child’s life outside school and the whole school ethos.

As the ‘No More Boys and Girls’ documentary showed, by explicitly challenging gender stereotypes you can also initiate remarkable changes in both ability and behaviour. After just two weeks of practice with a tangram puzzle, the top 10 pupils went from all boys to five boys and five girls (watch from 51:24 to 51:40) while the boys’ observed bad behaviour went down by 57%.

This article suggests some areas you can look at, with recommendations of further reading, training and videos to watch.

Exploding myths

As the Let Toys Be Toys survey showed, a quarter of teachers had ITT that reinforced stereotypes.

Myths in education about gender stereotypes might include:

  • boys are slower than girls to read
  • girls are naturally quieter than boys
  • science and maths are boys’ subjects
  • boys are better at sport than girls
  • boys and girls can’t work together or be friends with each other… 

The list could go on!

Some of these stereotypes are affected by ‘innocent socialisation’ of children from when they’re born, but not all of them. A common theme perpetuated by trainers is an expectation that boys will underachieve. As one respondent put it

(To encourage boys) to write, you need to tie pencils to dinosaurs and set up building sites and car wash stations outside. To get girls interested in maths, you need to number fruit and veg in the shops and dolls in the home corner.

The 2009 publication, Gender issues in school – what works to improve achievement for boys and girls by Professors Becky Francis and Christine Skelton, is a great place to start with your staff. Some staff will have seen boys who underachieve or girls who are ‘naturally’ better behaved than boys, so discussing and exploding the myths that you may have been taught in your own training or hear being reinforced by colleagues or parents requires nuance and repetition.

The book Boys Don't Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools by Mark Roberts and Matt Pinkett is a great reference tool for understanding how reinforcing gender stereotypes affects boys’ underachievement and can lead to them fulfilling this expectation (and therefore reinforcing the myths!).

Curriculum… and what’s on the walls

You may have heard about campaigns to decolonise the curriculum, but you can also apply a gender lens to the historical figures, key events and topics that are taught at primary school.

Have a look at your schemes of work: how many women are included?

On your history timelines, are the key events about men?

It can be hard to find the women, as history and society are dominated by white men, but you can discuss why there are fewer women and research more women to include.

You may note how most non-human characters are male, or how few non-white characters there are in any books.

Social media often has campaigners and teachers who are doing some of this work – look at Herstory or The History Girls on Twitter but there are others.

Think more broadly about where men and women are represented: what do the wall displays and corridors show? What are the names of your classes?

If they’re named after authors, or inventors, or scientists, or local celebrities, how many are male and how many are female?

Audit your books

Have you flipped through the non-fiction books recently to see what the illustrated dictionaries or encyclopaedias show when they define ‘nurse’ or ‘doctor, ‘firefighter’ or ‘police officer’?

What assumptions are made in lesson plans or in textbooks about the role of men and women?

Obviously with budgets tight, you can’t go out and replace all the books, but it’s worth considering an audit, with clear parameters, of where there are really obvious gender stereotypes in say, picture books: mums always pushing buggies, dads always doing DIY.

You may note how most non-human characters are male, or how few non-white characters there are in any books. CLPE and BookTrust have been researching representation in children’s books, building upon the work The Observer did for a couple of years on the top 100 picture books.

The campaign End Sexism in Schools is focusing initially on KS3 English, but might give you ideas for how to collate data.

With KS2 pupils, you could co-opt them to become Gender Detectives. Let Toys Be Toys and the National Literacy Trust offer a downloadable poster specifically about tackling gender stereotypes through literacy and language.

Consider your language

Language can often be the hardest thing to notice and change about yourself, but it can have a huge effect on young children. Some of the tips from Let Toys Be Toys, which are adapted from original resources from the NEU, focus on language, for example:

  • challenge stereotypes when you hear them, using real-life examples (‘my dad’s favourite colour is pink’, ‘my husband often cooks dinner’)
  • don’t address the children as ‘boys and girls’ but as ‘children’, and find other ways to divide them up
  • use language that acknowledges different families and does not make sexist assumptions about parents’ roles – don’t assume ‘mum’ will sign the form or always be picking up
  • keep talking about stereotypes when you see them; don’t put them in an RSE twice a term box.

Take into account the age of staff

In both 2013 and 2019, almost one in three primary teachers (31%) were aged 30 or younger according to the OECD, and the average age of the teaching workforce in Britain has been falling steadily since 2005. This is relevant because it’s worth thinking about what your current staff experienced in their childhoods and at school. What was ‘normalised’ in their own schooldays, in terms of sexist behaviour and attitudes?

When I did some training of BEd students, aged 18 to 20, I was struck by how many of the young women (there were only three men!) felt that ‘sexism’ was subjective and should not always be challenged in the classroom – unlike racism, which they had no qualms about challenging.

The ‘whole school approach’ is about ensuring gender equality across the whole school, with an explicit culture of ‘anti-sexism’.

In her study of toy catalogues and advertising throughout the 20th century, Dr Elizabeth Sweet shows that the toy market swung back to becoming more segregated from the mid 1990s, and it’s since then that these students teachers have grown up. The Young Women’s Trust 2015 study showed attitudes were going backwards:

  • one in three young women (aged 18 to 30) thought men are better suited to being an IT technician compared to 10% of women aged 31 and over
  • 40% of younger women thought people of both genders could be a plumber, but 66% of older women thought this
  • one in three young women thought nursing and caring were better suited to women than men, while just 13% of older women felt the same.

One approach for this generation or cohort of young teachers is to refer them to their Public Sector Equality Duty obligations under the Equality Act, and that sex is included as a protected characteristic to ensure no sex discrimination. As the Fawcett Society recommends:

Government should issue new teacher training guidance. We recommend that the DfE extends the Initial Teacher Training Core Content Framework to include knowledge and understanding of gender stereotypes, and stereotypes relating to race and other protected characteristics, and the approaches to teaching that can be used to counter them.

Adopt a whole school approach

The ‘whole school approach’ is about ensuring gender equality across the whole school, with an explicit culture of ‘anti-sexism’.

Schools may have a conscious culture of ‘anti-racism’ or ‘anti-homophobia’, and have policies that set those out; a gender equality and ‘anti-sexism’ ethos from the top down (SLT and governors) is a recommendation from organisations such as UK Feminista, Lifting Limits and the Institute of Physics to ensure not only a greater gender balance across science and arts subjects, but also in mutual respect between boys and girls. You can read more about it on p56 of the Fawcett report ‘Unlimited Potential’.

It is an approach well worth researching for both primary and secondary schools since the Everyone’s Invited revelations and the subsequent Ofsted findings.

Last Updated: 
19 Jul 2021