Gender stereotypes in schools

“At present research shows that rather than consistently challenging gender stereotypes, in some schools these are unthinkingly exacerbated.”

Most schools make conscious efforts to educate around issues of diversity but even with the best intentions gendered stereotyping can sometimes go unnoticed or unchallenged as some of the examples on this page show.

Lifting Limits supports schools to examine how gendered stereotypes may be perpetuated and/or challenged within their own environments and also to equip their pupils to tackle gendered inequities wherever they encounter them.

Curriculum

Men have historically dominated many fields and this is (understandably) reflected in who is taught in those fields across curriculum subjects.  Even where schools do make efforts to include notable women in given fields, taken as a whole – across subjects and across year groups – men (and predominantly white men) still dominate, sending powerful messages to children about who is an explorer, inventor, artist or composer.  From our school visits and analysis of school curriculum planning, those commonly taught across many fields are predominantly male as these examples show (female names in orange).

Inventors

Hans Lippershey, Baron Karl von Drais, Edison, George Eastman, J Presper Eckert & John Mauchly, Penydarren, Alexander Graham Bell, Wilbur & Orville Wright, Martin Cooper

Explorers

Christopher Columbus, Neil Armstrong, Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Howard Carter

Artists

Bruegel, Lowry, Arcimboldo, Wren, Rousseau, Hockney, Diego Rievera, Frida Kahlo, Haring, Klimt

Composers

Handel, Vivaldi, Back, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, John Williams, Lili Boulanger             

Books

Whilst many schools make an effort to source books which model equality and diversity, as a whole, books in schools still reflect the mainstream book market which remains gendered in how it presents and markets children’s books. A 2017 review of the top 100 children’s picture books found lead characters are twice as likely to be male and male characters are 50% more likely to have a speaking part.

There is a ‘girly’ section in our school library. All the books are lurid pink and easy to read. I’ve complained several times to have it removed, as literature shouldn’t be gendered.

Secondary school teacher, It’s Just Everywhere report

Language

Language can be a very powerful tool in challenging – or reinforcing – gender stereotypes. Whilst a zero-tolerance approach is rightly taken to racist or homophobic language in schools, what is considered ‘low level’ sexist language or ‘banter’ is often tolerated in a way that overlooks the profound effects it can have.

They’re general, everyday comments that people don’t pick out, or notice to be sexist.

Female student, It’s Just Everywhere report

We ask school staff to think about the language they use around pupils, for example, how they address children (boys as ‘mate’ and girls as ‘sweetie’?), speak around children (‘we need a strong man to open that’) or make assumptions (‘I went to the doctor’ – ‘what did he say?’). Even without sexist intent, language can perpetuate harmful ideas about what it means to be  ‘normal’ as a girl or a boy.

In school a teacher told me to man up when someone was bullying me.

Male student, It’s Just Everywhere report

My PE teacher has a large range of insults, his most common, and most insulting, is ‘like a girl’.

Girl age 9, Lifting Limits workshop

School practices

Gender stereotypes are sometimes hidden in school routines and practices.  Are girls assumed to be more helpful and asked to help tidy up? Are boys assumed to be stronger and asked to move furniture? Are policies on uniform, jewellery and make-up applied equally to all?

We were packing up and a girl went to put the boxes back in the cupboard but the teacher said ‘leave it, that’s a boys job, you go and pack the books’.

Male student, It’s Just Everywhere report

All the science groups in my class are named after men

Y2 pupil

Boys and girls feel pressure to conform to stereotypes

In our primary school workshops,  girls and boys say they feel that stereotyping is unfair and that they feel pressure to make choices which are considered ‘normal’ for their gender. Many children can see the limiting effects of stereotypes, yet they are hard to resist when a child wants to fit in with their peers.

It is not enough for children to be told they can do anything or that sexist language is wrong – but crucially they also need to see those messages reflected in staff attitudes, what they learn and their experience of the school environment.

Find out more: see Why it matters and What we do