Even before a child is born, we often know if it has male or female reproductive organs, and with this knowledge comes a whole set of assumptions about what it means to be a girl or a boy.
Subconsciously or not, we expect different things from boys and girls in line with gender stereotypes; indeed society even decides a child’s gender for them, before they have had time to work it out themselves. This is also evident if you look at your child’s surroundings; from the day they are born, it is pink or blue clothes, and then princess and superheroes, and so on and so forth.
These binary gender stereotypes are slowly starting to change and become more fluid, as are traditional concepts of gender in adults, but they still dominate the market of products available.
I believe there is a strong link between these early years and the expectations we have on girls and boys, which eventually leads to adult issues such as the gender pay gap and a lack of girls studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects.
Taking to Twitter, I asked the outside world what they thought of gender stereotypes in nursery, and the effect this has on predetermining a child’s future. The response was overwhelming, and I ended up in contact with a behavioural specialist, who specialises in the early years.
Julie Heginbottom, who has over 28 years’ experience dealing with early years, said: “The stereotypes are persistent, and, generally speaking, boys are encouraged to be active and adventurous in their play ─ they are expected to behave more aggressively; whereas girls are expected to be and to look ‘nice’ and to take on caring and nurturing roles from a very young age.
“This is mirrored, for example, in toys which are often presented and promoted to children on the basis of their sex.”
Many toys are non-gender specific and companies often work hard to make their toys this way. But not all… Lego was criticised in 2014 for its ‘Friends’ range which features female dolls who spend their time on shopping and their appearance.
Another is the Monopoly Pink Edition, described as ‘an ideal gift item for girls aged 8 years+. It comes in a beautiful pink box and all of the new counters can be attached to a charm bracelet! Play around the board buying and building salons, boutiques and malls.’
Toys aimed specifically at boys are often based on engines and motors, construction and physical activity. At their worst, some ‘boys’ toys’ encourage a particular kind of aggressive masculinity, based on fighting and war.
How children are dressed can also limit what they do, how they see themselves and how other people see them. For example, girls wearing dresses or skirts may be discouraged from certain types of play for modesty reasons, and boys could find themselves being teased if they wear certain colours or styles.
A study from The Guardian found an array of items available in major chains, from a T-shirt for three-year-olds bearing the slogan “Future WAG” to 3.5 inch high-heels from New Look designed for an eight-year-old girl.
The effects of this, as highlighted by Ms Heginbottom, can be extensive: “The effect of these gender stereotypes is experienced by children from a young age. Young girls can become overly concerned with body image; children can be bullied who do not meet the stereotypical ideal of what it means to be a girl of a boy; and children who do not conform to gender stereotypes can experience negative feelings about themselves.”
It matters if we treat boys and girls differently from a young age because it sets up a pattern for life, based on difference. Although there is nothing wrong with difference in itself, when it leads to limitations and discrimination it is problematic, and it can affect long-term confidence, opportunities, achievement, relationships and more.
We are all socialised according to our sex at birth, whether we like it or not. The influence of culture is huge, and because marketing and money are often involved, the messages are very powerful and successful.
Many parents and childcare professionals have the best of intentions that they will not limit children according to assumptions about what makes a girl and what makes a boy. And then, as they watch pink-clad girls adorning tops that say “Future WAG” or boys in superhero costumers, they wonder what they can do about it.
Ms Heginbottom said: “There is a lot you can actually do as a parent. You can take your inspiration from the changes that you make in your own workplace or family. You can remember that gender and socialisation are learned. And what can be learned, can also be unlearned. Society can, and does, change over time. I mean, pink actually used to be for boys!”.
The first step in changing cultural expectations is awareness, and realising that gender stereotypes are ingrained in everyone’s life and are often unconscious. It is about recognising what those stereotypes are, how they affect you and what you can do to challenge these.
Julie Heginbottom (2016) (Telephone communication regarding gender stereotypes in early years) [Personal communication: 24 November 2016]
 Rachel Williams (2010) ‘Too much, too young? Retailers still selling over-sexualised clothing to kids’, para. 2 <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/apr/16/children-clothing-survey-bikini-heels> [Accessed: 29 November 2016]