What Do Gender Stereotypes Mean for Nursery Staff?

Bright Horizons’ Director of Early Childhood explores how we challenge gender stereotypes in our nurseries

Following the recent publication of the Fawcett Society’s report Unlimited Potential, the Early Childhood team in Bright Horizons have been actively asking, ‘what does this mean for us?’

The report shows parents acknowledging that they often treat their male children differently than their girls and this got us thinking, “Do nursery practitioners do the same and how do we know?”

How Are We Doing?

At our Knowledge Community meeting in January, we talked extensively about this very issue. The Early Childhood Specialists in Bright Horizons work directly with the practitioners in our nurseries on a daily basis, offering guidance and support to help them to implement the very highest standards of early childhood practice. They see first-hand how teachers relate to children in play and learning situations, the type of toys and environments that are provided, and generally get a ‘feel’ for whether or not children are treated ‘equally’, regardless of gender.

Through our discussion and by sharing examples of practice that we’ve seen, we’re delighted to learn that our practitioners are widely confident to challenge stereotypical behaviours and attitudes where they see them.

For example, if a child’s parent or carer says, “I would prefer that Billy doesn’t wear the princess dress in the role play area,” they would explain sensitively about the value of role play and “dressing up”. This fits with the philosophy that all children are unique and express themselves in different ways, regardless of gender or other differences.

Play For All

We learned that teachers in the nurseries are also actively finding ways to engage children in the role-play kitchen, rather than allowing the ‘girls to take over’ as can sometimes happen. Mud kitchens, potion stations or dough creation stations encourage all children to take part, regardless of their gender, helping children to feel comfortable in that space. This helps them to learn from a very early age that if you want to create something special in the kitchen, you absolutely can and it’s not a ‘girl’s place’ to be.

Avoiding Labels

Our teachers are very mindful not to label children as ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ whenever possible; referring instead to children as ‘friends’ or ‘children’. We actively challenge some trends in language like the currently fashion to address groups of people as ‘guys’. Although this term of address is used widely, to include both male and female audiences, we’re very aware that it is gender-biased and should be challenged at every opportunity.

Mixed Groups

Nonetheless, teachers in our nurseries are very careful not to group children together according to gender. For example, lunchtime groups tend to be led by the children, who can sit with their friends; teachers don’t organise them into a table of boys or girls any more than they would organise children by other differentiators, such as skin colour, ethnicity or religion. We know that this would be socially unacceptable – so we are similarly proactive about not grouping according to gender.

Diversity & Inclusion

The issue of gender equality and diversity in general is something that we’re passionate about. We actively encourage men to become involved in childcare, as while we know that the sector is traditionally staffed by women and we also know that children need to have both men and women as positive role models in their lives.

The gender of the caregiver is not the important issue – it’s how they support, nurture and encourage children that is key. We have men working as teachers in our nurseries with all age groups, and they’re integral to the nurturing and caring of our children and are involved in every aspect of the nursery day. They carry out all of the same roles as women in our teams, from direct nursery teaching, through to leadership, support and advice in our senior roles. 

Keep Moving Forward

We have some great examples of how we promote gender equality in our nurseries, but we’re also mindful that we can always do more. Therefore, we constantly challenge each other and review our practices, so that we can be sure we’re always doing the best we can to enable all of our children to reach their full potential and be ‘whoever they want to be’.

Caroline Wright, Director Early Childhood