15 December 2020

Harmful gender stereotypes are significantly limiting children’s potential, warns a landmark report from the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood. The Commission was established by leading gender equality campaigning charity, the Fawcett Society, and calls for changes in education, parenting and the commercial sector.

Unlimited Potential - the final report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood sets out how gender expectations significantly limit our children, causing problems such as lower self-esteem in girls and poorer reading skills in boys. The report finds that stereotypes contribute towards the mental health crisis among children and young people, are at the root of girls’ problems with body image and eating disorders, higher male suicide rates and violence against women and girls.

Stereotyped assumptions also significantly limit career choices, contributing to the gender pay gap. The report also evidences that parents want to see change and sets out a number of practical solutions.

Key findings from the report

  • Three quarters of parents (74%) say boys and girls are treated differently, and six in 10 (60%) say this has negative impacts.
  • 70% of mothers and 60% of fathers agree that this unequal treatment affects how able boys are to talk about their emotions.
  • Asked what work parents could see their kids doing when they grow up, seven times as many could see their sons working in construction (22%) compared to just 3% for their daughters, while almost three times as many could see their daughters in nursing or care work (22%), compared to 8% in relation to their sons.
  • 66% of parents want to see companies voluntarily advertise toys to boys and girls in the same way. 
  • Four in ten (38%) education practitioners had either had negligible training, or none at all, on challenging gender stereotypes before starting their role.

The report is the culmination of an 18-month process of research and evidence gathering, cochaired by Prof Becky Francis, now Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation and Rt Hon. David Lammy MP, in his capacity as former chair of the APPG on Fatherhood. The Commission brings together an influential group of stakeholders, from Mumsnet and the National Childbirth Trust, to the National Education Union and campaigners Let Toys Be Toys, to Usborne Books and educational publisher Pearson Plc.

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society Chief Executive, said:

Gender stereotyping is everywhere and causes serious, long lasting harm – that’s the clear message from the research for the Commission. From “boys will be boys” attitudes in nursery or school, to jobs for boys and jobs for girls views among some parents, these stereotypes are deeply embedded and they last a lifetime.

We need to end the ‘princessification’ of girls and the toxification of boys. The commercial sector too often uses gender stereotypes and segregates boys and girls simply to sell more products. But this is not about making everything gender neutral. We also have to make women and girls visible when, because of pre-existing bias, the default male will still be the prevailing assumption. So for example, routinely showing children women leaders or scientists is important.

The majority of parents recognise that there is a problem and increasingly they want something different. They want to see real change coming from Government and companies and need practical help to make changes themselves.

Professor Becky Francis, Commission Co-chair said:

What every parent hopes for their child, and what educators hope for children in their class, is that they will be free to achieve their potential – yet what the evidence shows is that we still limit our children based on harmful, tired gender stereotypes.

That adds up to real harm. From boys’ underachievement in reading, to the gender pay gap, the evidence is clear that the stereotypes we impart in early childhood cause significant damage to our children.

But this is also a message of hope. If Government, companies, educators and parents take action, we can challenge stereotypes and change lives, making it possible for our children to live with fewer limitations.

Download the full report
Download the full press release

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