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The power of ‘Why?’: Challenging gender stereotypes

date March 9, 2021Susie Haywood

Anyone who spends any significant amount of time with young children will have gotten used to hearing one word – ‘Why?’. Usually, it’s a welcome word – it can really get a conversation going and offers a chance to explore an idea or concept.

As a mum to two young children, I’ve heard it quite a lot recently: ‘Why does it snow?’ ‘Why do we have to have pasta for dinner again?’ ‘Why do I have to do schoolwork at home?’ ‘Why do you ALWAYS have to work?’ and this belter from a few weeks ago ‘Why does your Amazon account have pictures of some of the stuff Santa got me for Christmas?’ You’ll be familiar I’m sure!

I’m also sure that there must be a reason why children use this word so much. I’m no expert in child development, but it seems sensible to hypothesise that asking all these ‘Why?’ questions might be children’s way of making sense of the world and understanding what they see all around them and experience every day.  Putting things in a wider context helps to explain things better.

Challenging gender stereotypes

We’ve been delivering Gender Friendly Nursery training to early years childcare professionals for over five years now. In that time I would estimate that we have delivered aspects of our training to over 500 individuals – through courses, presentations, webinars and workshops. One of the things we like to say about our training is that it takes participants on a journey, from the ‘What?’, through to the ‘Why?’ and finally to the ‘How?’.

I think it’s fair to say that most people who attend our courses are either there because of the ‘What?’ (‘What is this all about?’ ‘What do I need to know?’) or the ‘How?’ (‘How can I become a better practitioner?’ ‘How can I do better for the children I work with?’). So I think people are often quite surprised at the length of time we spend on the ‘Why?’.

But there’s a reason we believe it’s so important for practitioners who attend our training go away with a sense of ‘why’ doing this work is so important. Why we need to improve our practice around gender. Why gender stereotypes are limiting the opportunities and aspirations of children. Why those seemingly harmless phrases, beliefs or jokes need to be continually challenged.

dad and son having a conversation

Celebrating children’s potential

I haven’t yet had a conversation with a childcare practitioner who doesn’t agree that we should ensure children are not in any way limited because of their gender. Many practitioners already have a really good understanding of and experience in ways in which they can adapt their practice to create equal opportunities across the nursery for all children. Our programme celebrates this good practice and provides more ideas, suggestions and a structure for how early years settings can not only minimise gender stereotyping, but also begin to compensate for the messages that children will already be receiving about gender roles from society in general. But what we offer in addition is a really broad understanding of the myriad of why’s.

Why a Gender Friendly Nursery?

Gender Friendly Nursery was developed as a public health response to gender inequality. Barbara and I were carrying out pieces of work relating to a variety of public health concerns: suicide (especially amongst men), gender-based violence, parental mental ill-health, poverty and isolation.  We had a lightbulb moment at a conference one day where we both came to the realisation that gender inequality was in a variety of ways fuelling or exacerbating many of the issues that we were dealing with in our community.  We decided that in true public health style we wanted to get in there early and find a way to limit the impacts on children of the harmful gender stereotypes and idealised gender roles which we saw as fuelling gender inequality.  And so the Gender Friendly Nursery was born.

childminder surrounded by children

The power of self-awareness

So we found our ‘Why’, and through the training, we help practitioners to find theirs. Because gender inequality is having an impact on us in so many ways, often without us realising. Sometimes it’s only when it’s spelt out to you that you can really understand the very real harms associated with these ‘harmless’ behaviours. So we lay it all out. We explore the links with gender-based violence and the impact, particularly on women and girls. We look at men’s violence, against each other and themselves and the ways in which this is harming our men and boys. We talk about how the messages we are being given in the media are putting pressure on us all to conform to idealised body shapes. We talk about how women are over-represented in the caring professions and men are over-represented in the science and technology industry – and how the messages we give to children may be funnelling them down a certain path.  We talk about all this and more. And usually, there’s something in there that strikes a chord with each practitioner…

And we see them. Those lightbulb moments. When people just ‘get it’. And we know we have done our job because they are more likely to go away and start to talk to their colleagues, friends and family about this stuff. They are going to (hopefully with the tools we provide them) make changes to their practice. They are enthused and motivated…

And in all honesty, to really do this stuff well we need an informed and motivated workforce.  Because being ‘gender friendly’ is about more than treating all children exactly the same. It’s a proactive equitable approach that takes thought, planning and constant reflection. It’s not easy!  So yeah, the ‘why’ is important, because without the ‘why’, will we really do our best to make it happen?

Members can watch the Kinderly webinar on this topic on demand on the Kinderly Learn platform. Non-members can find out more about joining Kinderly Learn here:

About the author

Susie Heywood is co-founder with Barbara Adzajlic of the Gender Friendly Nursery. They are both public health professionals based in Glasgow with experience of prevention work on a range of topics including poverty, gender-based violence, mental health, parenting and equalities. Inspired by a conference they both attended, they came to understand how gender inequality lies at the root of many of our big public health issues and see tackling gender stereotyping in the early years as one way we might begin to make a difference. Together they founded the Gender Friendly Nursery, a Scottish initiative that offers training and support to early learning and childcare settings to improve practice around gender stereotyping.

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