Feminist Friday – gender stereotyping in schools

In 1972 Betty Levy published an article in Feminist Studies on the role of schools in gender sterotyping of girls. This week I want to highlight the observations made in this article and compare them with some more recent observation of gender-stereotyping of girls.

Gender stereotypes are culturally-ingrained ideas about appropriate behaviours for females and males, but this promotes inequality between the sexes and can set young people up to expect and accept power-imbalances with relationships. Gender differences arise through the interaction of biology and a child’s social environment. Schools affect gender differentiation through both teachers and peers.

The feminist critique of gender roles requires the study of how and where these roles are learned. Schools are an important social institution that play a key role in elaborating and reinforcing gender roles. Schools are an effective instrument of social control because of the functions they play: custodial care, social role selection, indoctrination and education.

Children learn gender roles at an early age – it is one of the earliest concepts they learn.As they grow, children become increasingly aware of stereotyped ‘appropriate’ gender role behaviour. Part of this awareness is that masculine activities are more highly valued than feminine activities – girls are allowed to do some masculine activities but boys cannot do feminine activities.

Students learn by observing how teachers treat each other, by the prizes they receive at school or how teachers reward or discipline behaviour that adheres to accepted notions of gender, in particular preparing young women for their roles as daughter, wife and mother. The gender role training of girls also involves less tolerance for aggressive behaviour and greater encouragement of dependency. Girls who sit quietly are ignored, boys who act out receive more attention.

Young people typically buy into these gender stereotypes and are often unaware of when and how stereotypes impact on their behaviours and choices. Girls are so well trained in their gender roles that they continue to put domestic duties above their professional roles in adulthood.

The feminist objective is to make sure each individual can realise their potential and isn’t restricted by gender stereotypes, either the ones they have learned themselves or those forced on them by others.

It is sad that nothing seems to have changed and the same tired gender-stereotypes have only become more entrenched in our society. As recently as 2013 an article in The Guardian discussed a report into the way children learn gender stereotypes at school. ‘Primary school children who feel they have to diet in order to conform to airbrushed images in the media, secondary school children who are “touched up” in ways that make them feel uncomfortable…’

A typical response is to deny that gender stereotyping exists and that behaviour is just ‘natural’ – eg girls don’t like physics or maths subjects, girls don’t want to be engineers, or work in construction, and so on. But why would a girl want to work in any of these fields when she has been bombarded with negative stereotypes from the day she was born?

Society won’t change until people want to change it, but the challenge becomes even harder while-ever it is in the vested interest of so many to retain the status quo. I want all girls and boys to be able to grow to reach their full potential, follow whatever interests them and create a more equitable society.

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