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Promoting Gender Equality in the Young Learner Classroom – by Emily Herd

20170615 IH Journal_42 v2 62I recently had the following conversation with a two-year-old:

Me: What did the farmer give the cows to eat?

Boy: It wasn’t a farmer. It was a lady.

This dialogue reveals something depressing but not totally surprising. By the age of two, this child has already absorbed the cultural messages we are all bombarded with: that some roles are for women and others are for men. The fact that this gem of 21st century sexism came from a boy is not really relevant, since, having discussed the interaction with various friends and colleagues, many report similar conversations with young girls as well as boys. For example:

‘You can’t sit there Mummy [in the driver’s seat]. That’s Daddy’s seat.’

‘This is for girls – it’s got flowers on it.’

And my particular favourite:

‘Boys don’t cry!’

There’s a powerful YouTube video created by an organisation called ‘Inspiring the future’ in which a class of primary school children are asked to draw a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot. The vast majority – girls and boys – draw men. The power of the video lies in the gasps of amazement when the real thing walk in… and they are all female. In case we didn’t already have our heads in our hands, one child says ‘They’re dressed up!’ in complete disbelief that these women might actually do these jobs.

This state of affairs is damaging for boys as well as girls. Prevailing cultural norms that prevent boys from being able to express themselves fully and pursue whatever interests they may have are limiting and unhelpful to both sexes.

So where do these prejudices come from? And how can our young learners’ teaching be honed to counteract these subconscious assumptions?

Looking beyond ELT for a moment, in our house we have a recently published Ladybird book, containing the following text:

It’s early morning on Blossom Farm and the cows are being milked. Flo, the farmer’s wife, gets the milking machine ready. Farmer Fergus leads the cows in.
Farm Hullaballoo! by Justine Smith published by Penguin, 2011

Can you spot the problem?

Flo is just as much a farmer as Fergus, as far as responsibilities go, but here she’s ‘the farmer’s wife’. When was the last time you saw a female farmer in a book, I wonder? It’s rather unfair of me to single out Ladybird books, since this kind of thing is so widespread we barely notice it. ELT materials are, unfortunately, no exception. Though the editorial process for major ELT publishers does include

checks for gender representation, it relies on authors and editors to actively engage with the idea of promoting gender equality. It’s not always top of their list of competing priorities. And as writing and editing schedules are increasingly squeezed, many such areas of quality control are under pressure.

I recently asked around on Facebook for examples of sexism in ELT materials. In reply, I received a few really appalling examples, but the majority were the sort of persistent everyday sexism we might easily overlook. It’s the subtle sexism I’d argue might be particularly pernicious. The examples I’ve seen show that there’s still a tendency to show women in domestic and nurturing roles more often than men. I saw one reader in which a dad panics in helpless despair when his son realises they’ve run out of jam. In the end, mum comes to the rescue with a new jar she’s found in the kitchen. What kind of message does this send to boys, as potential future fathers? The depiction of useless dads is quite common – Peppa Pig’s dad is another example from mainstream culture – but hugely damaging. An overview of material also shows that teachers are much more commonly shown as female than male. In general, though, men are still more likely to be shown in professional contexts (either explicitly or through artwork). Men and boys are often given more dynamic character traits and a more active role, while women and girls are more likely to be depicted as passive.

As a teacher, what can I do?

In Stockholm, there are five gender-neutral pre-schools. In these settings, children are never referred to as ‘him’ or ‘her’ but only by name or as ‘friend’, with the aim of combatting gender stereotyping and giving students the same opportunities. It’s a controversial initiative, but one which opens up the debate: if even very young children perceive gender as different, then what can we do to make sure this doesn’t become discriminatory or self-limiting? Here are some ideas:

As a final word, I’d add that in the classroom we have an opportunity to control the messages and images children are exposed to. It’s a small window of the day when we have their attention. By being discerning in our choice of materials and self-critical about our own language and behaviour, we can make a real impact in shaping attitudes.

Further info

Swedish gender-neutral pre-schools: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2016/feb/02/swedish-schools-gender-alien-concept

Cardiff Metropolitan University bans sexist phrases http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/university-cardiff-metropolitan-bans-phrases-mankind-gentlemans-agreement-gender-neutral-terms-free-a7609521.html

Smith, Justine Farm Hullaballoo! (2011) London: Penguin.

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