Inclusion and wellbeing

Why Early Years is the Key to Gender Equality

Find out why Early Years is where the fight for Gender Equality should start
gender equality
November 25, 2020
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As Early Years educators, you know children are really just roughly-human-shaped sponges. As they absorb this new strange world they’re toddling through, it’s part of your job to guide those experiences and be mindful of the lessons that those experiences teach.

Gender stereotypes and bias are part of those experiences, and that’s why the way we talk about gender with children really matters. If we stop and think about the lessons we’re giving children, we can cultivate a more equal idea of gender, and how we treat one another in the coming generation.

To work out where to start when it comes to addressing gender inequality in your rooms, we chatted to Nic Ponsford, Co-CEO and Founder of the Global Equality Collective platform. Nic wants to show every educational setting and business how easy it is to create an inclusive environment, and why the first few years of a child’s life are so important when we talk about gender equality.

Why the way we talk about gender matters

“From about 18 months onwards, children can already tell the difference between genders,” says Nic. After this point, the way we talk about gender with children has a massive impact on how they see the world and their place within it.

This is why you’ve got such a vital role in the Early Years gender equality movement.

“We need to move away from these binary roles we’ve had in the past,” warns Nic. Reading ‘girls’ stories about helpless princesses and ‘boys’ stories about brave knights might not seem harmful, but this kind of language places children in stereotypical gender roles, and narrows a child’s opportunities in later life. If a child can only see themselves through the lens of a binary ‘boys do this and girls do this’ approach, they will hold onto this way of thinking in later life.

As an educator, you have the power to give children an environment that encourages and enables equal opportunities – from the staff you hire as role models to the activities you plan on a day-to-day basis. What can I do as an Early Years educatorWhat can I do as an Early Years educator?

What can I do as an Early Years educator?

The conversation about gender equality needs to start in the Early Years.

“For any sustainable change, it needs to be embedded at the centre,” Nic states. Early Years “gets pushed into a little corner away from the proper debates about education, which is ridiculous. It should be the flip-way.” All too often, the topic of gender stereotyping is only discussed when a child reaches school-age.

And yet, what could be more powerful than making sure children never establish these wonky stereotypes to begin with? We focus on tackling the issue when children are older, and for Nic, this is far too late.

Nic notes that when faced with a classroom full of teenagers, you have to constantly ask yourself “What route have they taken to get here?” What lessons did they learn in early childhood that may have given them a gender bias and why? It becomes a lot trickier to stop gender stereotypes at this stage, so we need to go right back to the start to where these biases form.

Early Years practitioners should be the ones to introduce these lessons to give children the best possible chance, and to rebuild the way we look at gender equality from the ground up.

“We want to get the home, the educational setting and the workplace all involved,” says Nic. In her view, these are all interlinked. If we stop encouraging stereotypes in Early Years, this will have a knock-on effect when the child goes to school and enters the workplace. Stopping biases from forming paves the way for a more equal future.

The big ideas

Questions for reflection

Children absorb everything around them, so by making the environment of your setting open to diverse gender roles, you’re giving them an inclusive environment from which to build an equal framework for life. Have a think about the questions below to assess what you could be doing in your setting to promote gender equality.

  • What practice do I see that might enforce harmful gender stereotypes?
  • Are children seeing a diverse array of role models? Are you making sure, for example, that they see female firemen or male nurses?
  • Do the stories you read to children challenge gender stereotypes? They might have a science-whizz princess or a boy who isn’t afraid to show how he’s feeling.
  • Are you encouraging non-gendered play and diverse gender roles in the games and activities you give? You can mix up the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys around your room, for example, or have an activity where boys play the nurse role.
  • Are you making sure that the staff you hire really represent the community that you live in? Can they recognise staff who look and act like them?
  • Are you including a range of images on your website that accurately represent the people in your community?

How to make your setting more gender inclusive

These are big questions, and figuring out what to do next isn’t easy. When you’ve had time to reflect, have a look at the tips below to see how you can make your environment more inclusive.

  • Learn as much as you possibly can. If you don’t fully understand gender equality and where your weaknesses lie, how can you help others change their own approach?! Read a few articles, talk to your staff and identify where you need change. Don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations about where you need improvements – this is a process and it doesn’t happen overnight.
  • Challenge your own behaviour and vocabulary when you talk and interact with children – think about using non-gendered language when you bring up topics about stereotypically gendered subjects. Are you used to calling a dancer ‘her’ or an astronaut ‘him’? Try to avoid labelling girls and boys differently, and avoid gendered pet names such as ‘sweetie’ or ‘fella’.
  • Give children gender inclusive activities and roleplay. Play is how a child sees and interprets the world, so activities are a perfect way to introduce gender equality to your setting. We previously partnered with Global Equality Collective to support the launch of EYHome, an online resource with 80 different gender-inclusive activities that you can use to encourage this.
  • Make your setting environment somewhere that encourages inclusive, non-gendered play. This can be as simple as mixing up your play areas to ensure that you don’t have a ‘boy’s’ or ‘girl’s’ corner. Have pictures non-conforming stereotypes too – like male ballet dancers and girl scientists. If you’re looking for handy tips and tricks, you can find a list of our 12 ways to promote gender equality in your setting here.
  • Start a conversation with parents about how they can reinforce what you’re doing at home. The Global Equality Collective have a wonderful resource specifically for this called Raising Rebels. From book recommendations to advice on handling uncomfortable topics, it’s a great tool for parents to develop their own understanding and continue the work you’re doing at your setting.

Not quite sure where you should start?

The reason Nic is so vocal about the importance of Early Years is due to the launch of her fantastic new platform, the Global Equality Collective. The GEC platform lets you assess how your setting scores in terms of gender equality and inclusion – perfect for those who don’t know quite where to start.

Instead of constantly asking yourself questions such as “Am I doing enough to encourage gender equality in my setting? Do my staff feel supported? Is my website inclusive and representative of diversity?” you simply fill out a questionnaire on the Global Equality Collective website to get solid data on what areas you should be working on.

You’ll be able to see exactly where the gaps in your setting are. The best part? For every gap in your knowledge or practices, the incredible eLearning hub offers a whole host of podcasts, book recommendations, articles and an entire community for you to build and develop your knowledge.

The platform is about starting a conversation, about getting ‘comfortable with discomfort’ by addressing the fact that you may not be doing everything you can to encourage gender equality.

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Don’t forget the parents

Giving children an environment that encourages gender equality is key, but what can you do outside of the walls of your setting to really make a lasting impact? Involve the parents.

“There’s never going to be a solution if you don’t bring it all together,” states Nic. Creating a link between the setting and the home is part of this solution, as it ensures the work you do as an educator is reinforced time and time again.

You could start a discussion with the parents about how to encourage inclusive play at home, or suggest books for them to read to their children that include diverse heroes and heroines. You can find an extensive list of wonderful books exactly like these on the GEC platform here. Sharing knowledge creates an invisible string between the setting and home, and for Nic, repetition and exposure are absolutely essential to make a lasting impact.

For Nic, this sharing of knowledge is how we can create a fairer and equal world. She hopes the Global Equality Collective platform encourages Early Years practitioners to strike up difficult conversations with parents and address inequality as early as possible to stop harmful stereotypes.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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