Gender stereotypes in life, in schools and in education

Certainly in the UK, and I know in many other countries we have problems getting girls and boys to study some subjects. As a Computer Science undergraduate at Edinburgh and Birmingham Universities it was hard not to notice the ratio of boys to girls, I would estimate at least 80% boys when I studied 10 years ago. Similar gender imbalances are common in subjects like physics, science in general and I know conversely some subjects struggle to recruit boys.

As a teacher I was always impressed by the efforts made by individual teachers to get a variety of students to take their subject. During one school fire drill, with all the kids streaming onto the field, it was unusual but great to see a boys PE class come out of the dance studio while a girls group were playing touch rugby on the field. Many national organisations have taken this up and I know in the world of ICT and Computing teaching E-skills UK were one group to take on the challenge especially with their creative CC4G programme which I led for 2 years in my own school.

Two recent events have reminded me of the problem of getting girls into certain fields.

First was the Royal Society’s Call for evidence on Computing in Schools. I made some small contributions to the Mirandanet response to this and received a copy of the BCS and Computing at School’s group response, (Computing at School CAS is a fantastic organisation that works to promote computing in UK schools). The CAS response showed the numbers of students taking Computing at A-level taken from the JCQ (Joint Council for Qualifications) website. I was astonished to learn that last year only 278 girls took A2 computing in whole of England. I taught 3 of them so actually taught over 1% of girls A2 Computing in 2009/2010. All rather depressing. But at least lots of good people are doing good things to try to slowly redress the balance.

That was the first shock I had, the second was a little more surprising. On a bored Sunday Tube (London Underground) journey I picked up a copy of the Toys R Us catalogue sitting on the seat next to me and had a flick through. I promise you I’m not a serial reader of children’s toy catalogues! I was rather surprised with some of the items they were selling and the pictures of each gender child next to the items.

First up the telescopes and sciencey toys

Science Toys
Boys like telescopes

As you can see it’s the boys who are enjoying playing with the telescopes though there is a girl enjoying an anatomy toy. Strike 1 for promoting physics to boys and not girls.

So let’s move to the next photo

Girls with shopping sweeping and ironing toys
Girls with shopping sweeping and ironing toys

Yes that’s right, the girls are not just playing with their ice-cream makers but shopping, sweeping and ironing. Hmm this is getting a little 1950s stereotypical now but it’s all innocent isn’t it. So let’s check on the next page.

Boy with DIY girl with the Cooking
Boy with DIY girl with the Cooking

When I saw these I had to look again, no not at the rather weird thought that a parent may buy their child a toy McDonalds kitchen, but by the other sterotypes. The boy doing his DIY, the girl playing in the kitchen. But wait what’s that in the bottom photo? Is it…

Girl serving boy a burger
Girl serving boy his dinner

…yes a little girl serving food to the little boy, how delightful.

I worry science and ICT teachers are fighting a losing battle.

Published by D Needlestone


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  1. I think that there is still a tendency of stereotype toys – whilst both my boys had a pushchair and a doll, and enjoyed playing kitchens and cleaning, I’ve heard parents exclaim ‘my son’s not having a pushchair! A doll? I don’t think so!’.
    And stereotype colours – it took me a while to persuade one of my boys that purple wasn’t a ‘girly’ colour which is odd as he had less of a problem with pink!

    I had one doll as a child – I carried her around by her hair. My favourite toys were cars (I had a wonderful yellow transporter) and marbles. I never liked Barbie, and girlie comics passed me by – no Twinkle or Jackie for me – I preferred Match and my League Ladders!

    My Dad knit me numerous jumpers and other things. Not a very ‘manly’ thing to do, but very useful! And his Dad before him.

    And just last night, I tried to sew a merit badge on my son’s blazer. It wasn’t quite right, so my husband unpicked it and sewed it on again. But he is a trained nurse – and you know what they say about them…..;o)

    In terms of ICT, I’d say at primary level that boys are more inclined towards it, but that girls are equally competent, just many of them are good at other things too so noone really encourages them specifically. I guess that the need to make quite narrowing choices at secondary doesn’t help. A broader curriculum post 14 would help with the ability to keep studying more things.

    Don’t know really what the answer is.

    I do always find it amusing though that the best chefs are (mostly) men, and that the firts British astronaut on the space shuttle was a woman….

  2. Well written and thought provoking post! Seems like England has a long way to go. I notice it all the time on the street and in the shops as well. Mothers with their children.

    By the way, be prepared to do the ironing when you get home. I’ll be busy playing with my telescope. And I’d like meatballs for dinner, please.

  3. I would be interested to know whether the whole toy catalogue, gender stereotypes thing is the same in, for example, China or Korea. I studied Computer Science in London and there were lots of women on my course – but hardly any British ones! I would love to know what we are doing differently. I don’t think the IT difference is as directly linked to general gender stereotypes as you might think – I’m pretty sure (although I’ve never been) that the Chinese have quite fixed ideas about the roles of men and women too, yet it doesn’t impact on their study/career field choices. An area for further investigation?

  4. Very good question Sophie – I didn’t say that of the girls on the courses when I was at university a fair percentage were overseas students, many from Singapore.

  5. Having been to asda to look for a toy today (have not looked for years) – I also was so surprised to see the gender categories there – for that to be allowed are we not going backwards. An interesting question about whether this is the same in other countries.

    I agree that women on computer courses are more likely to be from overseas rather than British ones from my experience………..although the balance of staff teaching these subjects is often completely different….in many places more female than male staff.

  6. What an interesting post, thank you Daniel. I teach in a ‘diamond’ structured school where the single sex 11-16 education is a very interesting showcase for studying gender differences in learning. I think that gender stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophesies and it isn’t until the fear of appearing ‘unmanly’ or ‘unfeminine’ dissipates that children can break free of them. Fundamental and latent fears about being different from the perceived norm, especially if that might hint at homosexuality, can’t be far below the surface.

    Here’s a provocative question: does it matter if boys and girls are different? Do they need to pursue these various pathways equally? What will happen if they don’t?

  7. As a male primary teacher I have been confronted with these stereotypes all the time… afterall, primary teaching’s a women’s job isn’t it? 😉

  8. Well, at least the Human Torso Learning game is presented as having cross-gender appeal!

    My perception of science and ICT in primary schools (in Scotland, at least) is that there is an effort to broaden the appeal and put aside notions that they are boys’ subjects. I guess it’s all about making those subjects relevant. Looking at how science is shown on TV (well, CBeebies), it is encouraging to see that more often than not, the kids asking the questions and helping out with Nina’s investigations are girls. (And encouragingly, there’s always a quorum of boys on I Can Cook).

    And surely McDonalds don’t have kitchens, they just have “machines”… I seem to recall Fast Food Nation quoting a figure of frozen to “fully cooked” in about 90 seconds.

  9. I see that color stereotyping catalog thing in more than just Toys R Us ads. It’s sad. I talk to my daughter often about the dumb sales pitch that pink = girl and not boy stuff.

    I saw a pink toolbag and pink-handled tools at Wal-mart last week, intended for women, not kids. What?? I can see toolmakers trying to reach out, but is that really effective?

    Marketers are a lost cause, I guess.

  10. No doubt the UK is ahead of many societies but still not where it should be. Education has much to learn from marketing and media professionals about how to sell courses and how to make educational resources appealing and accessible to different age groups. But the media sets the agenda and this kind of message shouldn’t be so common.

    Laura, would be interested to know more about the idea of a “diamond structured school”, I’ve never heard of this before.

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