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Why gender stereotypes harm everyone on their lifelong learning journeys

Angharad Morgan Angharad Morgan Gender Action Programme Coordinator

Gender stereotypes harm everyone. They place us all into binary boxes, impacting the way we develop, learn and view ourselves. Before a child is even born, their biological sex has determined how society will define them, through a gender binary.  

From gender reveal parties and gender-assigned toys and clothes, already society is making assumptions about a child's characteristics. These gendered expectations will determine how a child is treated by their family, schools and how they see themselves. 

A key example of this is the high level of drop out from sports when girls reach six years of age, as being active isn’t considered to be feminine (Women in Sport, 2016). This also impacts boys who don’t fit into this traditionally masculine box, favouring dolls and dresses. I’ve had Dads apologise in the playground for their son having a doll. Are we ashamed to bring up boys to be empathetic, caring and prospective active parents?  

As children get older, the shift in power becomes apparent and sexual harassment becomes commonplace in schools (UKFeminista and NEU, 2017), reinforced by uniform policies and a lack of education around the topic for both staff and students. 

What is the true impact of gender stereotypes? 

As a consequence of these gendered expectations, both male and female aspirations are limited. As children progress through school, teachers may start to see male students dominating the classroom and female students being left behind or responsible for managing the behaviour of their male counterparts. We also begin to see a change in the subjects that they choose to study.  

In 2021, data shows that subjects such as biology and maths were popular with female students, but physics and computers did not make it into the top 10. This is in comparison to the male students who made up 85% of the computing A Level and 70% of the design and technology cohort. 

Not only should there be a greater representation of women and girls in STEM subjects, but there should also be greater representation of men and boys in traditionally feminine vocations (health and social care, childcare, nursing, teaching and the arts) and A Level subjects (English and modern foreign languages).  

This gender gap continues to widen in the workplace as women enter sectors with lower pay (healthcare, education and administration) and less security (fixed term, temporary and zero-hours contracts), alongside managing household and caring responsibilities. Maternity leave, single parenting and part-time work impact their career progression, prospective wages and pension, creating this gender pay gap.  

These seemingly harmless stereotypes will continue to impact everyone throughout their lives. This is felt even more so by black women, single parents, those from a lower socio-economic background, those with a disability and those from the LGBT+ community. These intersections should not be underestimated.  

After the GCSE results this summer, we are saddened to see that the socioeconomic attainment gap has grown by around 6% with those in North East England showing the greatest disadvantage, compared to those in London.  

What are educational settings currently doing? 

All schools have a completely different culture and community. This means that for some educators they will get support from colleagues, senior leaders and students. For others, the journey can feel lonely and challenging as your passion for social justice may not be considered a priority. This can make it difficult – but know that there are like-minded people out there who can offer support.  

Gender Action was launched in 2018 by Kings College, the Institute of Physics, University College London and the University Council of Modern Languages. It was launched in response to the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In 2023, Mission 44 and DECSY took over the programme and we will continue to launch it nationally over the next 3 years.  

At Gender Action, we’re able to offer you that guidance when you need it. As a teacher myself I know that time is often limited, so we want to ensure that everyone is behind tackling sexism, not just one member of staff. This means that senior leaders, governors, schemes of work and the school community will be actively involved in tackling these issues. 

Six key areas to make a difference in your setting 

At GA we focus on six key areas, which can apply in schools, universities, youth clubs and workplaces.  

1. Not everyone will be an expert in this area, so it is important that the training of staff is made a priority. This includes all of those working in the school, not just teaching staff.  

2. An understanding of everyday sexism, unconscious bias, stereotypes and intersectionality should be as commonplace as safeguarding training.  

3. Training can be run on training days, during staff meetings or as part of the CPD programme. 

1. Talk to and listen to students so they can discuss their experiences and be actively involved in implementing change.  

2. Setting up inclusive societies or lunch clubs can be an effective way to allow students to talk in a safe space.  

3. You could also conduct a questionnaire or focus groups to hear how the students are feeling.  

4. Reflect on your positionality and how that can impact how students respond and their capacity to open up. 

1. Take an active role in identifying gaps in your schemes of work.  

2. This can be done as part of a department initiative and form part of your CPD programme.  

3. Talk to students about what they would like included and acknowledge the gaps. If the content is predominantly white, male and middle-class, then talk to the students about this. Encourage them to understand why this is the case and why it matters.  

4. Representation should be embedded in the curriculum, rather than a token gesture. This is not just about meeting quotas, we want everyone to see these amazing women as role models, for the work that they have achieved.   

1. Open the opportunities up to all students so that they can see the diversity and range of options available to them.  

2. It’s important to acknowledge that not all students have started at the same point, so consider extra initiatives or support that may be needed for some pupils. 

1. From the staff recruitment to communications with parents and posters around the building – do any of these reinforce gender stereotypes?  

2. Consider how staff and students want to be addressed and the use of pronouns for those that want to use them.  

3. I have a “she/her” pronoun badge on my lanyard and am looking forward to the day when I get asked whether it’s “Miss or Mrs” and I can respond “actually, it’s Dr”.  

4. Consider how you address the class, terms such as ‘guys’ or ‘boys and girls’ are not gender neutral so use terms such as ‘team’, ‘people’ or whatever term of endearment you might have for your group!  

1. For change to truly be implemented, we need everyone to be involved.  

2. Keep parents/carers informed throughout and tell them about your initiative to tackle sexism and stereotyping.  

3. This will come with its challenges, but ultimately this work is striving for an inclusive, intersectional, equitable society which benefits everyone – so we need all involved.  

At Gender Action, we work to empower schools and teachers to tackle gender inequality in their schools, offering free 1:1 training to teachers to challenge sexism and stereotyping, in particular the underrepresentation of girls in STEM subjects. It's our job to help teachers create an action plan for their school and enable them to combat sexism using a whole-school approach. Alongside the representation of girls in STEM, we take an intersectional approach to tackle other forms of sexism, including the impact on boys and men. 

To find out more about this project please visit our website https://www.genderaction.co.uk/ or email [email protected]. 

About the author

Angharad splits her time between GA and teaching Social Sciences in Newcastle. She is an active unionist and Vice-Chair of the Women’s Organising Forum for the National Education Union. She is currently undertaking her PhD in Education and Social Justice at Lancaster University and offers educational consultancy and workshops for educators and organisations tackling sexism in education. 

These seemingly harmless stereotypes will continue to impact everyone throughout their lives. This is felt even more so by black women, single parents, those from a lower socio-economic background, those with a disability and those from the LGBT+ community.

Angharad Morgan, Gender Action Programme Coordinator

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