How gender stereotyping negatively impacts boys

Gender stereotypes and inequalities that arise from them can be harmful to boys in education and beyond. Olivia Dickinson describes how challenging them can benefit boys

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...

Pupils in primary schools today are well-versed in gender stereotypes. They learn about them as part of the RSE curriculum, they watch the #LikeAGirl video and are asked to draw a firefighter, or a doctor, or a picture of what job they want to do.

By upper KS2, some of them will tell teachers if something is sexist (a video, a book, a throwaway comment by a teacher or friend) and they understand society’s expectations of them based on their gender.

This generation of girls and boys may now be very well informed about gender stereotypes but inequalities that arise because of those gendered expectations persist.

Male stereotypes

Being male is the biggest factor in crime, suicide, suspension from school (at any age), GCSE performance and unemployment.

And yet when you think of gender stereotypes do you mostly think about how they affect girls? How they’re expected to be quiet and tidy, always well behaved and studying hard to get good grades?

Or maybe the more negative stereotypes of girls, that they need to look pretty and care about their appearance to get on, that the jobs they’ll do need to be compatible with looking after their children or caring for older family members?

While toys, clothes, books and attitudes that diminish girls and narrow their aspirations are often seen as the ‘biggest’ problem when challenging gender stereotypes in childhood and education, the stereotypes around boys are often more insidious.

Society has certain low expectations of boys, and they then get away with certain behaviour, as that’s just how they are.

Examples of stereotypes

  • Clothing: T-shirts have fearsome dinosaurs and dangerous diggers, footballs and games consoles on them.
  • Toys: when toys are marketed to boys they have themes of action, adventure, science, space and transport.
  • Books: boys are expected not to read books that feature girls, or are by women (did you know JK Rowling was advised to use her initials when she first published Harry Potter, to not put off boys?).
  • TV shows: boys are not expected to watch TV shows that have lead girl characters.

These stereotypes mean boys are often directed to toys and activities that are about using their strength and bodies, about investigation and science, that use gross motor skills, and help their spatial skills (construction).

They miss out on play that helps to develop language, communication and emotions, (role-play or nurturing play) and activities that use fine motor skills (for example art and crafts).

Boys will be boys?

Stereotypes of boys and men are often framed around ‘boys will be boys’, and there’s not much to be done. They are loud and messy; they are physical with each other and unable to communicate their emotions; they are the class clown and occasionally the class genius.

Older boys are seen as not being articulate or thoughtful. Indeed, it is because of innocent socialisation that boys often have fewer words for their emotions: parents often talk to their sons less than to their daughters and are less likely to discuss emotions with boys.

Society has certain low expectations of boys, and they then get away with certain behaviour, as that’s just how they are

The Sexism in Schools report from the NEU and UK Feminista found that 17% of primary school teachers have witnessed sexual harassment in their school. That research also found that over a third of primary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping in their school on at least a weekly basis.

It is that gender stereotyping that then leads to the gender inequalities we see in society as kids grow up, including the ones that put men at a disadvantage around their mental health, their GCSE subject choices, their degree and career choices, and as they become partners and fathers.

What can you do?

Let Toys Be Toys has put together 10 ways to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom, all of which benefit girls and boys. There are particular areas you can focus on to benefit boys.

Non-macho culture

Don’t think you have to have a boy-focused curriculum to engage boys. The 2009 publication, Gender issues in school – what works to improve achievement for boys and girls by Professors Becky Francis and Christine Skelton, debunks this, as does the book Boys Don’t Try: Rethinking Masculinity in Schools by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts.

A non-macho culture is a key factor in schools achieving good standards in boys’ writing. The culture in the school and classroom must be one where intellectual, cultural and aesthetic accomplishment by boys as well as girls is valued by all.

This reflects the themes that Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts explore, that reinforcing gender stereotypes affects boys’ underachievement and can lead to them fulfilling this expectation.

Boys read girls

In the same vein, don’t fall into the trap of believing that to get boys reading, they need to read books about boys, or with a male protagonist, or about action and adventure, or will only read non-fiction.

Of course some boys will only read non-fiction, but so will some girls. If you give the message to boys that they ‘shouldn’t’ read about girls or books written by women, you are devaluing girls and women.

The Let Books Be Books campaign on social media has the hashtag #boysreadgirls to show how many boys out there do read books by women, or about girls. It seems to be a persistent myth in publishing and TV that boys are not supposed to be interested in stories about girls, and boys are then being given the message that maybe they shouldn’t be interested in stories about half the population.

The End Sexism in Schools campaign has done research into the texts used across KS3 English, and found that for 891 schools across 104 local authorities:

  • 82% of novels taught feature a male protagonist
  • 77% of schools teach only one or no whole texts by female authors.

You can also use books to show boys in non-stereotypical roles. What caring roles can boys be shown in? Show boys they can dress up, they can have emotions other than anger, they can do baking or cleaning or drawing.

‘Girly’ vs ‘boyish’

There are two other things you can do when challenging gender stereotypes to benefit boys.

  1. Be aware of your own unconscious biases and stereotypical attitudes.
  2. Ensure that in your setting, staff do not devalue things that are coded feminine.

Research by LEGO found that ‘71% of boys surveyed feared they would be made fun of if they played with what they described as 'girls’ toys' – a fear shared by their parents.

‘Parents are more worried that their sons will be teased than their daughters for playing with toys associated with the other gender,’ said Madeline Di Nonno, the chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, who conducted the research.

For boys and girls to be free to be who they want to be, to be liberated from gender stereotypes then try as hard to resist devaluing anything ‘girly’ as you do to elevate anything ‘boyish’.

Equip boys (and girls) to choose their own interests, feel free in choosing what the toys they like, the books they read, and the protagonists they relate most to.

Last Updated: 
05 Apr 2022