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  • Laura Battisti

Gender Stereotypes and the UK Educational System

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

‘You throw like a girl!’, ‘Don’t be such a pussy!’, Man up!’. All of those are sentences every person has encountered or still encounters on a frequent basis. The problem with phrases like this is their reiteration of gender stereotypes.

Especially for younger individuals, an overexposure to denigrating and generalising gendered perceptions is damaging. When children enter secondary school, they are at a stage in their development where they form a lot of their attitudes. This is why it is shocking that gender stereotyping and sexism is particularly prevalent in the UK educational system.

This guide will explain the concept of gender stereotypes, how they are reinforced through language and behaviour and the prevalence of these stereotypes in the UK educational system. We will also explore possible solutions.

What are gender stereotypes and how do they influence children?

According to the Office of the High Commissioner a gender stereotype is a ‘generalized view or preconception about attributes or characteristics that are ought to be possessed by, or performed by, women and men’.

For example, a rather common gender stereotype would be that women like the colour pink and men like blue. While this particular stereotype should also be challenged, it is the more hostile and condescending ones we need to focus on. Especially within institutional frameworks where kids are at the forefront.

As already mentioned, children are living through a very important development stage in their life when in school. Of course, they are already influenced by the beliefs held by their family and friends. However, since schools are traditionally seen as a place of knowledge acquisition, the attitudes formed there seem more valid.

"Nearly every aspect of school is deeply impacted by gender stereotypes."

In fact, nearly every aspect of school is deeply impacted by gender stereotypes. Just take schoolbooks. When opening up your old French book and going to the chapter concerning ‘Daily tasks’, you will quickly notice a rather stereotypical portrayal of everyday activities: La mère est en train de cuisiner (the mother is cooking). Le père va à la gym (the dad goes to the gym). Why isn’t it the other way round? Gender stereotypes.

Then, there’s also language in general. The way children speak to each other on the playground. The way teachers explain science subjects to girls. It is not uncommon to hear someone shout ‘You throw like a girl!’ over the football field. Neither is it for a teacher to comfort a girl by saying ‘Don’t worry, girls are usually better at languages’ when failing at maths.

There are many more types of gendered attitudes which circulate in schools. As with most, they are particularly focused on degrading and belittling girls. What many underestimate, though, is their effect on girls’ development. This is why this guide will now focus on the repercussions of gender stereotypes and how to counteract them.

Repercussions of gender stereotypes and how to counteract them

Women are particularly affected by gender stereotypes. Of course, men also suffer from this kind of stereotyping. However, the amount of denigrating attitudes towards women far exceeds those of men.

In fact, on top of often being portrayed as inferior to men personality-wise, there is also the added layer of sexualisation which often results in harassment. A study by UK Feminista shows that over a third (37%) of female students in mixed-sex schools have experienced sexual harassment while at school. Sadly, a lot of girls do not even dare to report this, since it is often normalised. Sexual harassment thus often ends up being unrecorded and unnamed. This can have drastic consequences on both female students’ mental health and sexual development.

"37% of female students in mixed-sex schools have experienced sexual harassment on site"

The question which undoubtedly arises here is: How?! How is it possible that, in the 21st century, women still fear reporting sexual harassment and put up with being treated and viewed through the lens of gender stereotypes? The answer to this is quite complex and not satisfactory: miseducation and insufficient anti-harassment and sexism training of school staff.

While there already are initiatives like Gender Action in the UK which actively try to combat gender stereotypes through proper training, they are not widespread enough yet. A lot of teachers, in the report by UK Feminista, state that they are not even aware of specific policies that concern sexism in schools. Therefore, it is necessary to make ‘Anti-Sexism-Training’ part of Initial Teacher Education. Many curricula currently only briefly mention gender stereotypes as part of their Relationship and Sex Education class. This has to be revised and made a big focus point.

A letter sent to the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson on Friday 28th May 2021 by various groups including The Fawcett Society and Lifting Limits demands for an ‘early intervention on gender stereotypes’. Both groups advocate for gender equality and the eradication of gendered attitudes. Lifting Limits is quite similar to the Gender Action initiative, since it focuses on removal of gender stereotypes for both boys and girls in schools. The Fawcett Society, on the other hand, specifically focuses on women and particularly their rights at work, home and in public life.

What now?

Gender stereotypes should not be as widespread as they currently are within the UK educational system. Schools are especially influential in forming attitudes and intervention is essential. Nonetheless, without the help of the government and Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) long-lasting change will not be possible.

It is now up to us as a society to initiate a transformation and demand new standards. Letters like the one to Gavin Williamson are a good start. Now we have to persevere.

For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.

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