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From birth, we have different expectations placed upon us depending on whether we are male or female. Boys and girls tend to be brought up differently from birth, with blue clothes and action toys bought for boys and pink clothes and dolls bought for girls.
This often continues throughout childhood and into adulthood, shaping the way society perceives men and women.
Misogyny is rife in everyday life. Fifty-nine per cent of women in the UK between the ages of 13 and 21 reported having experienced sexual harassment at school or college in the past year, while 42 per cent of men believe gender equality has already been achieved and a third oppose feminism, stating that they feel excluded by it and think it is irrelevant, according to the report Sounds Familiar by the Fawcett Society.
This is despite Glassdoor Economic Research revealing last year that only just over a third of managers in Britain are female and just over a quarter of board members are women. The UK currently has 453 male MPs and 195 female MPs.
On average, women in Britain suffer a gender pay gap of around £100 a week for equivalent jobs, yet females outperform males from primary school up to university level.
Unfortunately this inequality and mindset about what jobs boys and girls should aspire to can be embedded in the minds of children from an early age, if they are exposed to damaging stereotypes both at home and in nurseries.
The gender police
Olivia Dickinson from the Let Toys Be Toys campaign said: “Children often first encounter the ‘gender police’ at nursery, whether in the form of ‘that’s for girls/boys!’ comments from other children, other parents or occasionally nursery workers.”
A boy at a Bright Horizons nursery, for example, wears pink shirts almost every day and was told by another boy on more than one occasion that “boys don’t wear pink.”
But with support from nursery practitioners, the pink shirt enthusiast explained that he is a big fan of the singer Bruno Mars who also regularly wears pink.
This earnt him a ‘cool’ status from his peers which gave him the confidence to continue wearing his pink shirts with pride.
On another occasion, practitioners swiftly intervened when a girl was told by another child “you can’t be a builder because you’re a girl.”
The Bright Horizons team said that children are very understanding and accepting, they simply need to have the situation explained to them: “Once it is explained that this is not the case and there are in fact many female builders, sometimes using books or images to challenge their view, they accept this.”
Ms Dickinson from Let Toys Be Toys added: “In early years education, it is recognised that children need a wide range of play experiences to develop different skills.
“Many settings offer really good practice in inclusive and equal play.
“It's incredibly important for children's development to be able to experience all types of play, and to understand that boys and girls are equal.”
This means early years settings can have a strong influence on whether they reinforce this gender disparity or help eradicate stereotypes and promote equality between the genders in the generations of the future.
Neutral coloured toys for girls and boys
Tommies Nurseries’ Westhill Corner in Coventry supports this approach and strives to discourage gender stereotypes in the everyday running of the nursery.
The nursery does not force preconceived gender ideas on the children by providing them with neutral coloured toys.
Kelly Andrews, nursery manager, explained: “All toys are aimed at both boys and girls.
“We try to buy neutral colours so that colour stereotypes are not used. However, we also encourage boys to play with pink toys and girls to play with blue if this does occur.”
This neutrality not always the case when purchasing toys, however, as they tend to be aimed towards a specific gender.
The early years team at Bright Horizons explained: “Often when purchasing toys they have been advertised for a specific gender. However, children are not made aware of this and are encouraged to interact with and utilise all resources.”
This is what Let Toys Be Toys campaigns against. Ms Dickinson said: “Let Toys Be Toys believes toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity.
“That is why we are asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.”
Concerns over boys wearing dresses
Parents of nursery children are often fully supportive of this gender-neutral approach, which is adopted at Westhill Corner as well as Bright Horizons nurseries.
Ms Andrews from Westhill Corner said: “Parents will encourage their children at home to follow the same attitude,” she explains.
“One parent bought their son a pink Power Ranger for Christmas as that is the one he wanted.”
Unfortunately, though, this is not always the case.
Bright Horizons told daynurseries.co.uk that they sometimes have families, particularly fathers, question their sons dressing up in what are considered female gendered costumes.
But the Bright Horizons teams are fully supportive of gender creativity and exploration and take the time to explain this to concerned parents.
They said: “We explain that they are extending their imaginative skills and will at times be emulating their mothers through role play.
“One family did share their concerns about their little boy who was dressed in princess dresses every time they were collected, but after discussions with the staff team they realised this was his interest at the time and they supported him by buying princess figurines to play with at home, alongside his other toys.”
And it’s not just the boys breaking the mould and enjoying toys and clothes marketed at the opposite gender.
“During ‘Dinosaur Day’ at the nursery some parents of girls bought their children dinosaur figures and books to support their interest,” Bright Horizons explained.
“They had not considered purchasing them before at home and were surprised at how popular they were.”
‘Don’t limit children’s imagination by telling them what they ought to play with’
It is important to many early years settings, and indeed parents, that children can pursue their interests, whatever they may be, and take part in activities based around these interests.
Ms Andrews from Westhill Corner explained: “We follow the child’s interests and therefore we allow the children to play with what they like.
“If a boy has been playing with a doll, we would encourage this and plan an activity for this in the nursery.”
The Bright Horizons team added: “Nursery is a safe space for children to engage in a variety of activities and explore the environment around them.
“Staff interaction and positive role modelling also helps to encourage this, with practitioners of all genders working within our nurseries.”
This approach is fully supported by Let Toys Be Toys, with campaigner Olivia Dickinson, saying: “Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them.
“All nurseries and early years settings can do their bit by not categorising toys, books or activities as only for girls or only for boys.
“Don't limit children’s imagination by telling them what they ought to play with.”
Don't label asssertive girls 'bossy'
Zero Tolerance, a Scottish charity working to end men’s violence against women, is keen to redress the balance and has sent tool kits into every nursery in Glasgow to raise awareness of how young girls and boys are treated differently from the day they are born.
It suggests changing practice so girls are ‘allowed’ to be assertive without being labelled ‘bossy’ and boys are ‘allowed’ to get upset. Staff should make sure girls are encouraged to get muddy and boys encouraged to dress up as nurses, challenging gender norms with books and role play.
The charity hopes this will help generate more respect for girls and women in the future.
For more information about the campaigns run by Let Toys Be Toys and Let Books Be Books go to http://lettoysbetoys.org.uk/