Gen­der of­fend­ers

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - CONTENTS -

Why the Let Toys be Toys cam­paign is com­ing into schools

We wouldn’t put up with racist or ho­mo­pho­bic dis­crim­i­na­tion in our schools, so why do we ac­cept gen­der stereo­typ­ing, asks this equal op­por­tu­ni­ties cam­paigner. Kat Ar­ney dis­cov­ers why the Let Toys Be Toys cam­paign to chal­lenge lim­it­ing gen­der norms is branch­ing out into the class­room

It all started with a thread on Mum­snet a few years ago, when peo­ple were get­ting frus­trated try­ing to find Christ­mas presents for their kids,” ex­plains Olivia Dick­in­son, a Lon­don-based dig­i­tal con­sul­tant. Faced with a wall of pink heels and Hoovers for girls or drab games and sci­ence toys aimed only at boys, par­ents on the fo­rum de­cided they were go­ing to push back against the lazy stereo­typ­ing that they felt was lim­it­ing their chil­dren.

By 2012, this sen­ti­ment had co­a­lesced into a cam­paign group, Let Toys Be Toys, which used so­cial me­dia to per­suade re­tail­ers to dis­play their wares in broader, less gen­dered cat­e­gories. It was phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful and five years later, the cam­paign­ers have turned their at­ten­tion to schools.

Sim­plic­ity was the se­cret be­hind the group’s early vic­to­ries, says Dick­in­son, who vol­un­teers her time for Let Toys Be Toys and of­ten acts as its pub­lic face. “We kept our ‘ask’ very sim­ple,” she ex­plains. “We’re chal­leng­ing stereo­types in child­hood so we just wanted to ask re­tail­ers to stop la­belling things as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’. Why pi­geon­hole kids when they’ve got the whole world be­fore them?”

Boots was the first shop to ca­pit­u­late, fol­lowed by a num­ber of ma­jor su­per­mar­kets. “Toys R Us was a big one,” Dick­in­son adds. But al­though it was a suc­cess­ful cam­paign, she says the group had a sense that there was more they needed to do. So in 2014, the team set their sights on books.

“The big of­fend­ers are of­ten non-fic­tion or col­lec­tions of sto­ries,” ex­plains Dick­in­son, point­ing to the com­mon trope of princess sto­ries for girls and ad­ven­ture or gross-out tales for boys – sugar and spice ver­sus slugs and snails.

Push­ing for change

It may seem harm­less, but a 2016 study by re­searchers at Brigham Young Univer­sity in the US found that “princess cul­ture” (per­pet­u­ated by Dis­ney in par­tic­u­lar) re­in­forced lim­it­ing gen­der stereo­types.

The Let Books Be Books cam­paign launched on World Book Day 2014 and asked pub­lish­ers to re­move overt “boys” and “girls” la­belling from their cov­ers. So far, 10 chil­dren’s pub­lish­ers have agreed and the team is keep­ing up the pres­sure on the rest.

Clearly, this group knows how to push for change, so schools had best be pre­pared: they are next on the agenda.

“Very early on we had the re­al­i­sa­tion that tack­ling re­tail­ers was all very well, and we were get­ting lots of par­ents in­volved,” Dick­in­son says. “But then chil­dren go to

‘We’re chal­leng­ing stereo­types in child­hood. Why pi­geon­hole kids when they’ve got the whole world be­fore them?’

nurs­ery and on to school, and they are still ex­pe­ri­enc­ing gen­der stereo­types in lots of dif­fer­ent ways.”

This could be “gen­der polic­ing” from peers, for ex­am­ple, a boy find­ing out he can’t play in the Wendy house, or boys telling a girl that ro­bots aren’t for her. Then there’s more sub­tle mes­sag­ing and lan­guage in the class­room, such as only us­ing ex­am­ples of male sci­en­tists, seg­re­gat­ing toys and ac­tiv­i­ties to dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the room, or al­lo­cat­ing tasks by gen­der, such as boys stack­ing chairs and girls look­ing af­ter class pets.

“We felt there was a need to do some­thing in schools be­cause we were hear­ing so many bad tales from par­ents about the way that their chil­dren were be­ing treated by teach­ers, as well as their peers,” Dick­in­son says. She stresses that she’s not blam­ing teach­ers for un­in­ten­tion­ally re­in­forc­ing stereo­types. She recog­nises that it takes thought, time and ef­fort to spot and iron out the un­con­scious bi­ases that ex­ist in all of us.

“It’s such an ef­fort to keep be­ing aware of it, but it’s re­ally im­por­tant,” Dick­in­son says. “Our in­grained so­cial as­sump­tions are re­ally strong even in chil­dren – for ex­am­ple, most GPS are women and kids are more likely to see a fe­male GP, yet they still say men are doc­tors. Or their mum will be the only per­son in the fam­ily who drives, but they still say only men drive.”

Dick­in­son wants to en­cour­age all teach­ers to reg­u­larly check them­selves and their lan­guage – who did they ask to do which tasks to­day? Did they use pet names for the girls but not the boys? – and to think about the sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages they are send­ing out (there is a list of 10 ways to chal­lenge gen­der stereo­types in the class­room at bit.ly/10gen­der­chal­lenge).

The cam­paign team are also work­ing to make the im­pact of gen­der stereo­types a more ex­plicit part of the cur­ricu­lum. Be­cause the cam­paign was ini­tially based on toys, they’ve used gen­dered toys as the ba­sis for a les­son plan for key stage 2 (bit.ly/ltbt­plans). Ex­pand­ing this idea, the team has now de­vel­oped a les­son plan for Year 9, which fo­cuses on gen­dered lan­guage and sits within the English cur­ricu­lum. There is also a les­son for early years and Re­cep­tion chil­dren, and the cam­paign team are keen to hear fur­ther ideas from the teach­ing com­mu­nity.

Does Dick­in­son ex­pect the cam­paign’s im­pact in schools to be sim­i­lar to that al­ready achieved in pub­lish­ers and toy shops?

Gen­der stereo­typ­ing is a habit for so­ci­ety, she says, point­ing out that we don’t use racist words or ho­mo­pho­bic slurs that were com­mon­place just a few decades ago. In Swe­den – of­ten held up as a gen­der-neu­tral utopia – con­certed school-wide ef­forts to tackle gen­dered lan­guage and ac­tiv­i­ties since the 1990s seem to be mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

More than ‘ker-pow’

And she hopes for broad sup­port. We are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly aware that plac­ing lim­its on girls is a bad thing, dis­cour­ag­ing them from pur­su­ing Stem sub­jects or sports, for ex­am­ple. But Dick­in­son be­lieves that the harm done to boys by stereo­typ­ing is equally wor­ry­ing, re­in­forc­ing prob­lems with ex­clu­sion, bad be­hav­iour, and even in­creas­ing their sui­cide risk later in life.

“Ac­tu­ally, the boys are more limited by this than the girls,” she says. “There has been some progress in push­ing back on the lim­i­ta­tions of what girls ‘should’ like and do, but at the same time there hasn’t been the same ex­pan­sion of what’s OK for boys.

“We’re set­ting boys and girls up to think of them­selves quite dif­fer­ently, but it’s im­por­tant for boys to be able to feel that they can do more than just go ‘ker-pow!’ and that they can be in touch with their feel­ings and talk prop­erly.

“And for the girls, they need to feel that they can do any­thing and be given the op­por­tu­ni­ties to prac­tice things such as con­struc­tion or sports.”

Ul­ti­mately, the world is chang­ing and our views of gen­der need to change, too. We live in a time where a grow­ing num­ber of world lead­ers are women, in­clud­ing the prime min­is­ter, but none of them are pranc­ing round in a pink princess dress.

The heads of the Metropoli­tan Po­lice force and Lon­don Fire Bri­gade are fe­male, yet vir­tu­ally all fire­fighter or po­lice dressing-up out­fits are aimed at boys.

“The big­ger pic­ture that we’re start­ing to look at is why do we need this at all?” Dick­in­son ar­gues. “If this was racism, or ho­mo­pho­bia or dis­abil­ity dis­crim­i­na­tion, peo­ple would be ap­palled and say, ‘I would never do that!’ We need to get gen­der aware­ness em­bed­ded in teacher train­ing and em­bed it at whole-school level to ad­dress un­con­scious bi­ases and get equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity for girls and boys.” Dr Kat Ar­ney is a sci­ence au­thor, broad­caster and co-pre­sen­ter of the BBC Ra­dio 5 Live Sci­ence show. She tweets @harpistkat

‘We need to get gen­der aware­ness em­bed­ded in teacher train­ing’

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