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What are we doing to our boys?


Tuesday 25 February 2020

A few weeks ago, 2 boys from Colaiste Choilm in Cork, won the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition with a project about how early in life gender stereotyping and bias can start. The boys conducted a statistical investigation into the prevalence of gender stereotyping in 5-7-year olds and the development of an initiative to combat gender bias. Head Judge, Joe Barry outlined the project saying, “They conducted workshops with 376 children aged from 5-7 years from a range of school settings with a number of different tasks including: choosing between gender-specific and gender-neutral toys; drawing and naming an engineer; and rating male and female competency at a number of gender-specific roles.” In the study, 96% of boys drew a male engineer while just over 50% of girls drew a female engineer. The study found that gender stereotypes emerge early in young children and are particularly strong in boys. This research is seen as being important for primary schools, but we in early years know that there are strong implications for our sector too.

This prize was awarded in the Social Sciences category. While much commentary on Twitter was positive, there were comments that Behavioural and Social Science is not ‘proper’ science and that their project did not deserve to win because it wasn’t ‘proper’ science. What gives the impression that when a science project does not relate to quantum physics, it is not ‘proper’ science? That social science is less than chemistry? It is people that matter most of all!

Around the time this debate was raging, I was doing my food shop in a local supermarket. I happened to hear a conversation between a young man and a little boy, aged about 4 years. I assume they were father and son. I didn’t hear the beginning, but what I did hear was the man saying to this child that he would have to ‘Stop playing like a girl’ and then a few minutes later I heard the little boy being told he should ‘man up’. He wasn’t shouting or anything, this was normal conversation. I was horrified on a number of levels: What made this young man think it was OK to disparage girls and women in this way; what message was that little boy getting from presumably the most important male influence in his life that the way he plays is ‘like a girl’ and that this is somehow less than playing like a boy?; How will this influence his engagement with girls he meets at school, and at play? And, I wondered, what experiences had this young man had to make him think in this way?

Those of you who have done the Leadership for Inclusion (Linc) programme, or the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training know how important it is that children get messages that are inclusive and positive about their roles. Boys need to know that it is OK to feel sad, to cry, to care, to love, to play with dolls, to like pink. Girls need to know that it is OK to wear jeans, to feel cross, to want to be an engineer, to climb trees or like Lego. Many toys shops still segregate aisles by boys toys and girls toys. The Anti-bias approach (developed by Louise Derman Sparks) helps adults and children, though the Anti-bias goals, to nurture the construction of a knowledgeable, confident identity as an individual and as a member of multiple cultural groups (such as gender, race, ethnicity, or class).

Similarly, Aistear in Aim 1 of the Identify and Belonging theme says: ‘Children will have strong self-identities and will feel respected and affirmed as unique individuals with their own life stories’.

In the images we display and the books we read we must try to address gender stereotyping. We can do this by making sure that children see female doctors and male nurses, women truck and bus drivers and male early years educators, women pilots and men receptionists and administration workers.

The research carried out by Alan O’Sullivan and Cormac Harris for their winning BT Young Scientist project reminds me of a similar project, by MullenRowe, which I read about a few years ago.  Children (20 in all aged between 5 and 7 years) were asked by three ‘teachers’ to draw a surgeon, a pilot and a firefighter. In all they drew 66 pictures and only 5 depicted women in these roles. The children are then asked if they would like to meet real-life versions of the people they drew.  To the children’s surprise the visiting teachers who had asked them to do the drawings turned out not to be teachers, but Ms Tamzin Cuming, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon in London, and member of the Women in Surgery (WinS) group at the Royal College of Surgeons, firefighter Lucy of the London Fire Brigade, and Lauren, an active RAF pilot.

There’s a saying ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. Let our boys see that caring matters, that being assertive matters and that gender is not something that stops any child being what they want to be. And hopefully little boys will not be told to 'man up' and stop playing like a girl.


Máire Corbett is an Early Childhood Specialist at Early Childhood Ireland. She trained in Montessori teaching and has completed an MA in Integrated Provision for Children and Families with the University of Leicester, at Pen Green.

Visiting member settings inspires me as I see the passion and energy educators put into providing great experiences for the children in their settings. I love seeing competent children at play! 

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