Updated: Aug 18, 2022
Gender stereotypes are the assumptions society makes about an individual (including their interests, characteristics, role, and sexuality) based on their biological sex. Gender stereotypes aren’t inherently problematic, there is nothing wrong with a girl who loves pink, or a woman who loves her role as a stay-at-home Mum for example. However, gender stereotypes have the potential to be harmful when they act to constrain, judge, limit, and position individuals along a constructed hierarchy. Gender stereotypes operate to increase commercial profits and perpetuate the patriarchy.
Children develop their gender identity through the biosocial model of development. This means it is developed through a combination of biological and social influences.
Since ultrasound technology made it possible in 1985, parents have been unconsciously gendering their children from the moment their sex is assigned, often in utero. As the child begins to interact with their world, they find these gender stereotypes reinforced though the media, commercialism, their social and educational environments. These social influences are especially significant during the early years of development, when children explore aspects of their identity to see what feels best for them and how others respond to this identity. If young children are not taught to identify and critically reflect upon gender stereotypes they are likely to either adapt to them or develop the belief that they are ‘wrong’ because their identity does not match that which society tells them is appropriate to them based on their sex.
The gender binary that western society most often accepts as absolute is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon. Individuals whom we might describe as transgender or gender fluid have existed across cultures and throughout history, dating as far back as Plato and ancient Hindu scripture. Every continent in the world has evidence of diverse genders and these people often held highly respected positions in society. When we look to the natural world from which we come we also find extensive evidence of intersexuality, gender fluidity and gender transitions. These knowledges and traditions were largely forced underground in the 1500s when colonisation spread across the globe, assimilating the global culture by force, and establishing men and women as binary and oppositional.
So how do the gender stereotypes that children are exposed to impact them as they grow up? The following are just some of the possibilities:
The young girl constantly praised for her appearance who grows into a woman who measures her self-worth by her physical attributes, potentially leading to disordered eating and body image issues.
The young boy encouraged by his friends to take risks, who grows into a teenager who asserts his masculinity through risky behaviour, potentially leading to incarceration or accidental death.
The young girl who is told that the boy at school teasing her is doing so because he likes her, grows up to accept dominance and violence in relationships as an act of love.
The young boy who is told to be strong rather than show or talk through his emotions, develops into a young man who does not know how to manage his feelings but is too afraid to speak about them, potentially leading to problems in relationships and/or suicide, the leading cause of death for young men.
The biological male who has a hidden feminine identity and is teased for their interests, then learns to suppress their true nature, growing into a young adult with a repressed identity, potentially leading to self-harming behaviour.
The biological female who doesn’t feel aligned to any gender, but is potentially directed towards a trans male identity by those around them because aligning their gender as male fits better into societies binary definition of identity.
The young girl who is given only stereotypically ‘girl’ toys (art and craft, nurturing, cooking), at school she is told girls aren’t good at maths, is then limited in her skill development and life path options.
As early childhood educators, we are in the unique and powerful position to be able to highlight gender stereotypes influencing children. We can support children to identify who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged by these stereotypes and empower them to make the choice about what feels right for them. We can create educational environments where diversity in all its forms is celebrated, setting children on a path towards a more cohesive and accepting society.