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A parent's guide to gender stereotypes

Photo: r.nial bradshaw

There are very few jobs where gender will genuinely affect a child's ability to do it well, but girls and boys still grow up aware of gendered stereotypes. So how can parents help their children to break out of these roles and be free to choose for themselves?

So, what is a gender stereotype?

Gender stereotypes are fixed ideas about men and women’s skills and characteristics and how they should behave. Common gender stereotypes include women being naturally good at caring and creative jobs, with men excelling at maths, science and physical tasks.

These can narrow a child’s ideas about what they can be when they grow up, rather than choosing a career that fits their individual skills and ambitions.

The facts

Studies have shown how gender stereotypes prevent girls from embarking on careers previously associated with men, such as in sport and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths.)

  • Only 17% of the UK’s tech workforce is female and over the last 10 years this has been dropping by 0.5% each year.
  • Girls still worry about what others might think if they take up a subject like Design and technology or IT, and they often fear sexist comments or rejection in the work-place due to gender.
  • Girls start to drop out of sport and physical activity from age 7 at a faster rate than boys. A study investigating reasons for this found that from the ages of 7-8, gender stereotypes are already appearing at school, with comments such as ‘girls aren’t as good at sport as boys.’ These negative perceptions of women are off-putting for girls who would otherwise like to be involved, and contribute to lowered participation in sport later on.
  • Boys can be put off doing jobs that are seen as traditionally female, such as nursing, teaching or staying home to look after children.

Biological differences between the sexes do not generally cause girls or boys to do well or badly in different subjects, so the explanation is generally a cultural one.

Young children are likely to accept what they are told as truth as they lack the adult ability to question and analyse a statement. That means that being exposed to sexist attitudes and gender stereotypes early on can have a profound and restrictive effect on children.

The good news is that sexist behaviour and comments that would have gone unnoticed before are now being challenged. People are spreading the idea that traditional perceptions of gender can restrict young people.

What can you do?

Gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our society, so it’s impossible to protect your child completely from them. But you can make your child aware that they exist and that they’re inaccurate.

  • Adjust what you say. Be aware that comments people make about girls ‘looking very pretty’ and boys ‘growing to be big and strong’ can make children believe that their other characteristics are less important.
  • Try to make small changes to how you separate the sexes. Say ‘children’ rather than ‘girls and boys’ and use the neutral pronoun 'they' rather than specifying he or she when talking generally.
  • If your child makes stereotypical comments, challenge them. Explain why they are inappropriate.
  • Don’t judge any of their ideas about what they might like to do and be when they’re older on the basis of which gender has traditionally done them. If a girl wants to be a fire fighter or a boy wants to be a nursery teacher, be encouraging and supportive.

The negative effects of ‘Princess Pretty’ and ‘manning’ up

Princess culture, in which girls’ looks, ability to wear clothes and find a partner are prized above any accomplishments they achieve is also damaging. It can lead girls to think that looks and having a relationship are their most important assets. It’s difficult to limit your daughter’s exposure to this, but you can do the following to help lessen its impact:

  • Praise her for what she does and who she is, not just her looks. Make sure she knows that a girl’s worth is measured by her personality and skills, not by her prettiness.
  • Encourage her to play with games and toys that are for both boys and girls.

Boys are often told to ’man up’ if they cry or show emotion. One result is that men will often find it difficult to open up about issues such as anxiety or depression as they get older. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 45 in the UK. Suicide rates among men are three times higher than among women with 84 men take their own life in the UK every week

As a parent, it’s important to help keep your child's mind open to all opportunities, regardless of gender. Helping them to see past stereotypes from a young age can help ensure they grow up happy and unrestricted by pressures to conform to an old-fashioned view of what girls and boys ‘should’ do.   

Further reading

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has several useful resources including an article and report entitled 'Stereotypes stop you doing stuff.'  https://www.teachers.org.uk/equality/equality-matters/breaking-mould

Let Toys Be Toys campaign is 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. http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/

The 'Changing the Game for Girls' report examines girls’ participation in sport. http://www.wsff.org.uk/system/1/assets/files/000/000/285/285/f4894dccf/original/Changing_The_Game_For_Girls_Final.pd

For more information on how media stereotypes affect girls, see our article, Why media images can ruin girls' lives.

Our Dove Self-esteem Project resources help boost children's self-esteem and give them confidence to reject stereotypes.

Q&A with the founder of STEMETTES

Careers your child could enter if they study tech

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: ​May 2018

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