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How to carry out a gender audit of your classroom resources
Do the media and resources you use in the classroom provide a balanced representation of male and female characters? Olivia Dickinson outlines practical steps for carrying out a gender audit
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Children are surrounded every day by media over which you have little control – the TV shows they watch, the online games they play, the adverts they see on their way to and from school (maybe on the side of buses or displayed in shops), possibly photos and news headlines online or in newspapers – so you may be wondering what an audit of the media they are exposed to in school can achieve.
Many studies have drawn attention to unequal representation in the media children are exposed to. Examples include the lack of diversity in the 'top 100' picture books, the dominance of male writers in KS3, and the lack of non-white characters and writers in picture books, fiction and non-fiction for ages 3–11.
When you think of auditing media and images you use in your primary and early years curriculum, you may initially consider only books, posters or displays on the walls.
But I’d like to take you through ways of auditing a range of media that you may be using with children from the age of three, focusing mostly on KS1 and KS2 but also referencing EYFS and Key Stages 3 and 4.
An audit can do a variety of things:
- It lets you evaluate the current status and range of resources available across the school or nursery.
- It enables you to see the gaps in the media that different teachers or key stages are using. Maybe your early years department is doing really well in having a broad range of picture books showing a mix of ethnicities, LGBTQ+ families and female heroes, but, higher up the school, often the books become less diverse or are dominated by stories about white boys or heteronormative families.
- It flags the little things you and your colleagues may not have thought about before, but once you put on your ‘sexism spectacles’ or ‘gender lens’, you cannot help but notice. Why does that display illustrating verbs have a boy playing football and two girls dancing? Why are all the animals male in picture books, and why are there no children or adults with disabilities in the videos you show?
- It opens the children’s eyes as well. Depending on their age, you can get them involved in different ways – older children will love noting down tallies of male and female figures, as they review the displays along the corridors or the posters in the lunch hall. Younger children can start to grasp whether boys or girls are the heroes of the books they read or the TV shows they watch. Here is an example of one Y2 teacher getting her class involved.
By laying the groundwork with an audit, you can help your pupils to become critically aware of what they are seeing and absorbing outside school.
The aim is not to flip every single stereotype but to check there’s a good balance
You can also counter that day-to-day media with what you choose to feature in your classroom or setting, or in the corridors, or through the media (books) the children take home, as well as in the conversations you have in the classroom about their favourite TV shows, books and characters.
You need to set the parameters of your audit at the beginning, depending on:
- time available
- staff available
- depth, breadth and type of media.
You can be really ambitious and aim to review everything but first consider what you will do with the results. What do you want to achieve? If you review everything, you may just feel disheartened that you’re proving the studies correct and then have no budget or time to make changes.
You could start by deciding the following:
- Is it across all year groups? If so, can you assign one staff member per year group to take the lead?
- Will you look at all books across the school? Remember this could include picture books, illustrated encyclopaedias, reading scheme books, chapter books, classic novels, textbooks, workbooks that children may take home, non-fiction books about historical figures or science topics, poetry books…
- Is there a time limit? Setting a time limit means you can create a snapshot of the books used across one topic, of of all the resources used in half a term for one year group or key stage, or of subscription content over the last two years (say for times tables or coding).
- That you want go broad but not deep. If so, stick to recording the representation of male and female characters across all media, but don’t delve into what those male and female characters are doing.
- That you want to go deep. If so, you could choose one category to look at positive and negative representations of male and female characters.
For any of these options, you can start with a pilot. Choose one week, or one set of books, or one classroom, and see how long that takes and what you find.
If you do the audit with colleagues, you can also find out how to standardise your results.
The main thing is to keep focused on why you are conducting the audit
Reviewing media for gender stereotypes will invariably flag up differences in opinion and only you can decide what’s best for your school in terms of what content to remove or to challenge, based on where your school currently is in understanding the effects of gender stereotypes.
Remember to always look at the positives too – what are the good examples of media that are challenging gender stereotypes, or showing positive and balanced representation of males and females?
Books are the obvious place to start with any audit. Male and female characters will be represented in many ways and across different types of book.
Consider their diversity in terms of representation of authors but also the stories being told.
- In fiction and fairy tales, who are the heroes and who are the villains?
- Who has the speaking parts?
- What are incidental characters doing in the background of picture books?
- Are women doing the caring and men doing the action?
- What are the family set ups portrayed in different books?
- How are historical figures’ relationships portrayed?
- What about the authors of the books? How diverse are they?
- How diverse are recommended reading lists that go home to parents and that may determine the stock in the library or book corner?
Reading scheme books can sometimes feel dated, and while it may be tempting to either not audit them at all or to treat them as a whole, it’s worth looking at the individual stories and pictures.
In secondary, more textbooks are used, and more ‘set texts’. You may feel your hands are tied based on the curriculum and the textbooks available, but it’s still worth auditing what you have. End Sexism in Schools is reviewing texts used in KS3 English, while educational publisher Pearson has launched guidelines to tackle gender bias and stereotypes in school textbooks.
Often, famous authors’ names are used for classes or tables in primary (Morpurgo, Dahl, Donaldson, Blackman, Ahlberg, Rosen…). If so, is there a good mix of male and female authors? What about authors who are BAME?
Often what has worked in the past gets reused without question
For the whole-class book in English, or the cross-curricular fiction texts you use to make history or geography come alive, look across the whole year plan and check you don’t keep choosing books with male protagonists. Children’s authors John Dougherty and Shannon Hale have both written with passion about not limiting boys’ reading by assuming boys don’t read books about girls. But, equally, make sure you’re not only choosing books featuring girls!
Non-fiction books about well-known figures in history or science may be dominated by white men, because of society being shaped by male inventors, politicians, rulers and scientists. Are there at least some books available that showcase the achievements of women (for example the Little People, Big Dreams series)?
In illustrated reference books, are there enough examples of women as doctors, or men as nurses; women as architects and scientists, men as dads and ballet dancers? The aim is not to flip every single stereotype but to check there’s a good balance. Men can be doctors and women can be ballet dancers too!
Your school may have subscribed to some digital learning platforms or services, perhaps for learning times tables or coding. Can you audit the content in those? What are the characters, artefacts and names telling children about how to be a boy and a girl?
Some of those services allow each child to set up an avatar when they log in. Look at what combinations of colour, hair, clothes and skin colour are possible.
Why not peer review each other’s resources to test the assumptions being made?
What about printed worksheets, whether used for homework or in the classroom? Are there themes you can spot from different providers, free or paid-for?
One parent tweeted last year about his daughter’s primary maths homework showing ‘women going on spa breaks and calculating weight loss; men buying bikes and doing sit-ups’, and the publisher responded to say the content was old. But by doing this audit you can decide to no longer use that worksheet, and also contact the publisher to explain why you’re retiring their resources.
Sometimes, teachers create their own printed resources for the class, possibly for homework but also for knowledge organisers or to test pre-learning before starting a topic.
Why not peer review each other’s resources to test the assumptions being made?
These assumptions may be made by colleagues but also, by extension, by previous cohorts of children, as often what has worked in the past gets reused without question.
This case study from Let Toys Be Toys is now quite old, and has been updated to show how feedback was acted upon, but is a good example of how a gender audit would have flagged the unconscious bias before it was sent home.
Some videos you use in the classroom may come from a trusted provider (free or paid subscription) but it’s still worth doing due diligence.
Here are some ideas:
- Even if it’s a YouTube clip that a colleague has used many times, try watching it again wearing your ‘sexism spectacles’.
- Even if it’s to illustrate a topic or learning objective that has nothing to do with gender stereotypes, check what bias may slip in. You may find it only features men, or the women and girls in it are performing stereotyped activities.
- You can also review the images or slide shows that an online provider has created to check for balanced representation.
- Images and videos used in the wider curriculum – RSE, music, PE, modern languages – can inadvertently reinforce gender stereotypes. Sometimes those resources are used at short notice (perhaps bad weather has changed PE plans) or by cover staff, so it is even more important to have audited what the ‘go to’ resources are.
- Online search-engine image searches have been proven to be racist and sexist (try searching some key professions – doctor, engineer, nurse – and see what results you get back) so take the time to check over what images are being used, and how to source alternatives.
- Music and PE in particular may well throw up well-worn visual sexist tropes, so it’s worth being even more attuned to challenging stereotypes in these subjects.
The ideas here for how and why to conduct a gender audit are not exhaustive. The main thing to keep in mind is not to feel overwhelmed, and to keep focused on why you are conducting the audit, and what effect you want it to have on your curriculum planning and resource collation over the next year, three years or five years. What will be different for the children currently in KS1 when they reach upper KS2, for example?
Also remember that having content that feature gender stereotypes may be unavoidable (you can’t rush out and change every book!) but it can always be a good point of learning for any year group. If you are explicit to the children about why and how you are reviewing the media they are exposed to, they may well end up one step ahead of you and flag problematic representation before you do!
- National Education Union: Breaking the Mould: Challenging 'traditional' stereotypes in nursery and primary classrooms.
- Gender Action: Resource library: Reports, guidance and activities from a variety of sources, focusing on gender equality.
- Letterbox Library: A social enterprise specialising in inclusive children's books.
- Little Box of Books: Books representing the diversity of our communities.
Last Updated:09 Dec 2021