Fawcett Society publishes new research on gender stereotyping in early childhood

By agency reporter
March 11, 2019

The Fawcett Society has published new research, Gender stereotypes in early childhood: a literature review ,which highlights the lifelong impact of gender stereotyping in childhood. In new polling, 45 per cent of people said that when they were children, they experienced gender stereotyping as they were expected to behave in a certain way. Stereotyping in childhood has wide-ranging and significant negative consequences for both women and men, with more than half (51 per cent) of people affected saying it constrained their career choices and 44 per cent saying it harmed their personal relationships.

Half of all women affected (53 per cent) said gender stereotyping had a negative impact on who does the caring in their own family. Older women were particularly affected by this. Seven in 10 younger women (18-34s) affected by stereotypes say their career choices were restricted.

Boys and men feel it too. Sixty-nine per cent of men under 35 said that gender stereotyping of children has a damaging effect on perceptions of what it means to be a man or a woman. Men were as likely as women to say that gender stereotypes they experienced had negatively affected their relationships.

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society Chief Executive, said: “Gender stereotypes hold us all back. We have boys who cannot express their emotions, become aggressive, under-achieve at school and go on to be part of a culture of toxic masculinity which normalises violence. We have girls who have low self-esteem and issues with their body image, with one in five 14-year-old girls self-harming. We have a heavily segregated labour market where just eight per cent of STEM apprentices are women. Gender stereotyping is at the root of all of this. We have to grasp the challenge to change it.”

The new data comes as the Fawcett Society publishes a review of evidence showing that harmful stereotypes are not only endemic, but they are unwittingly and repeatedly replicated and taught across society. Parents with new babies and young children inadvertently reinforce gender stereotypes creating a ‘gendered world’ through toys, play, language and environment. Teachers differently reward boys’ and girls’ behaviour, and representations in children’s stories are often stereotyped. By age two children are aware of gender and, as early as six years old, children associate intelligence with being male, and ‘niceness’ with being female.

The report points to the damaging impact this has, drawing links between gender stereotypes held by adolescents and violence against women and girls, and the direct impact on the gender pay gap of the low take-up amongst young women of science, technology and maths subjects. Amid a crisis of self-harm among young women in particular, the report cites evidence that children whose friendship groups emphasise traditional gender stereotypes have lower wellbeing.

Sam Smethers added: “This isn’t a trivial issue about who wears pink or blue, gender stereotypes are harmful. But the evidence is clear, the wiring in our brains is soft not hard. We can challenge attitudes and change lives, but we must wake up to the harm that gender stereotypes are doing to all of us and the price that we are paying for it.”

The research also identifies key interventions, particularly aimed at younger children, which work to challenge and change gender norms and mitigate against the harms seen in later life:

  • Children’s literature that challenges gender norms can undo children’s previously held perceptions
  • Whole-school approaches to gender stereotyping have demonstrated positive results
  • In Sweden challenging gender stereotypes is an explicit requirement of the school curriculum.

Additional key findings:

  • A majority of under 35s agree that stereotypes have wide-ranging adverse effects on children’s subject choices at school, young people’s career choices, attitudes to who does the caring and attitudes to what it means to be a man or a woman
  • 54 per cent of women aged over 35 affected by childhood stereotypes say they negatively affected decisions about whose job it is to care for others in your own family, compared with 38 per cent of men aged over 35.
  • 46 per cent of people agree government should take action to challenge gender stereotyping.

In the coming weeks the Fawcett Society will launch a ‘Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood’ to raise awareness, build a new consensus on the issue and examine the evidence of what works to challenge stereotypes, change childhood and change lives.

* Read Gender stereotypes in early childhood: a literature review here

* Fawcett Society https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

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