It's one year since we published our ground-breaking research, Unlimited Potential: Report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood. To mark the anniversary, we reflect on our work to date to tackle gender stereotypes, celebrate the steps that have been taken and plans to keep pushing this vital work forward.

Alison Henderson, Policy and Research Manager

Small but mighty steps to tackle gender stereotypes 

From the very moment our children are born, society teaches, imposes and dictates what is acceptable or expected of them through gender stereotyping. Whether we like it or not, we all do it. It’s part of the wallpaper of life.  

It is clear and evidenced - giving someone specific roles or characteristics based on their gender restricts their opportunities and constrains their choices. Gender stereotypes limit children’s potential.   

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and that same logic must be applied when tackling gender stereotypes – everyone has a role to play to make meaningful and long-term change.  

A small change with a mighty impact for challenging gender stereotypes  

We established the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood in early 2019, made up of experts from politics, academia, business, government and civil society. It set out to build a new consensus on the harm that gender stereotypes do and how, most importantly, they can end.  

The Unlimited Potential report made over 35 recommendations to commercial organisations, to Government, and to parents. One of those recommendations was that Ofsted should include a greater focus on tackling gender stereotypes – as well as those relating to other protected characteristics like race – in their inspection framework.  

Our research through the Commission showed that parents, along with education practitioners, wholeheartedly support this, with 80% of parents agreeing that they want to see their child’s school or nursery to treat boys and girls the same, with the same expectations and opportunities.   

Through consistent engagement with Ofsted, we pushed for a greater focus on tackling gender stereotypes. We questioned why ‘Challenging Stereotypes’ was only required at the ‘Outstanding’ level for Early Years, we wanted to see this change.  

We were delighted that this was a shared priority with Ofsted leadership – now, challenging stereotypes is a requirement to meet ‘Good’ standard for their Early Years inspections.  

This simple, straightforward change has the potential to create a seismic shift in school and childcare settings, that will now need to demonstrate that they are challenging stereotypes to stay above the level where the inspector says that their setting ‘Requires Improvement’ 

How can practitioners make change? 

But what exactly does this change mean in practice?  

Our research shows that most practitioners in early years and Key Stage 1 settings, recognise the harm that gender stereotypes can cause to children. However, what tends to happen is that practitioners can unnecessarily, and most often unintentionally, separate girls and boys, through language and physical segregation.  

Practitioners can influence children’s interests and success in different subjects and encourage children to engage in behaviour that is stereotypical. Yet, there is strong evidence to show that work to counter stereotypes, including promising work on the whole-school approach to early years settings, can change attitudes and behaviours.  

Our aim is not to point the finger, but to recognise the vital role that practitioners can play in making a big difference. 

They can:  

  • Encourage children to engage with a range of activities by offering play options that actively challenge gender stereotype 
  • Praise and support children when they take part in activities that run counter to gender stereotypes, such as girls engaging in risk-taking play or boys engaging in caring games
  • Reflect on their own practice and unconscious biases. We are all immersed in stereotypes, and these tips represent a starting point for practitioners to think about how these impact on their work – and what they can do to challenge them.  

Leadership is vital 

That’s some of our advice to practitioners, but it’s important to recognise and think about the wider ecosystem for them that needs to change – remember the village?  

Leadership in early years settings is vital to make challenging gender stereotypes a priority. In their initial training, for four in ten practitioners, said the discussion of stereotypes was limited to an occasional reference, or was not present at all.  

Leaders can change this by modelling best practice in their own interactions and encouraging reflection by their educators. They could use an INSET/training day to discuss how gender stereotypes and other stereotypes around protected characteristics operate in the setting and identify ways they can be challenged. Or they could continue with a review of gender and intersecting stereotypes in setting materials and providing staff with space to reflect on stereotyping within their practice.   

We are also campaigning for Government to shift this – but ‘Good’ school settings will have to consider their specific training needs to challenge gender stereotypes. Practitioners strongly support challenging gender stereotypes. Our survey shows that they want training and support, and that they do see a key role for Ofsted in this.   

Building blocks  

So, whilst the progress with Ofsted is to be celebrated, children’s lives outside of school brings just as much opportunity for gender stereotyping to thrive.  

From toys on shelves to adverts on the bus or on YouTube, companies use stereotypes to sell products and messages to children – this causes real harm. Boys are less likely to play with toys that emphasise caring roles whilst everything from girls’ clothing to what they play with pushes them away from Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (known as the STEM subjects).  

What do we want to see change? Create a range of experiences and options to be available to children. We want to go beyond removing pink and blue. We are calling for toy companies to pledge to change how they operate and end gendered splits in their company structures and marketing.  

LEGO, most recently, have pledged to do just that. 

Tackle stereotypes, every step of the way  

And whilst we can push companies to make change, advertisers also hold great responsibility in the fight to tackle gender stereotypes. Unlimited Potential found that 66% of parents prefer to buy toys which are equally advertised.  

To support advertising and marketing practitioners to challenge gender stereotypes at every step of the creative journey, we have published a new guideSmashing Stereotypes in Advertising in collaboration with LIONS.

It provides guidance on how advertisers can create powerful pieces of work that challenge outdated stigmas and it can be as simple as changing a colour scheme on set or tweaking language in a script.

We all have a role to play in tackling gender stereotypes, however big or small. 

And whilst we have made progress over the past year, we know there is still a huge amount of work to do to end gender stereotypes.

  • Find out more about our #SmashStereotypes campaign here
  • Read our newly published Smashing Stereotypes in Advertising guide here