No More Boys & Girls – Lessons in Equity

As part of my prep for an upcoming talk I’ve been rewatching the BBC documentary – No More Boys and Girls – Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a two part documentary from 2017  which sees Dr Javid Abdelmoneim work with a teacher (Graham Andre) and his class of 7 year olds to, as he describes it, “turn their class gender neutral” . The idea being to see if this can make a difference to some of the attitudes and ideas about what boys and girls and men and women can and can’t do or achieve.

When I first started doing work around gender stereotypes a lot of the focus was on how can we ensure that girls and boys aren’t treated differently – particularly in the early years – and was interested in learning from some of the work that’s been done around gender neutral approaches in places like Sweden. Though there are many benefits to these neutral approaches,  over time my views changed.  I realised that while we live in a world where gender stereotypes are so prevalent, where even young children in nursery have clear ideas of what is “for boys” and what is “for girls”, we need to be more proactive and challenging in our approaches.  Yes we need to stop reinforcing the differences, the gender binary, but we also need to compensate for the gendered stereotypical messages that children are exposed to.

That is where the idea of equity comes in.  In recognition that by the time they reach us children will already have absorbed many of these stereotypical ideas,  if we want to level things out, then treating everyone exactly the same might not be the best way to do this. 

I was keen to go back and look at some of the experiments that were undertaken in the No More Boys and Girls programme with this lens.  The title of the programme and Javid’s description would have you believe that this was an experiment in gender neutrality, and yes there was some of that.  Painting the pink and blue cupboards a different colour, eliminating the use of pet names (so important and worthy of a blog of its own) creating gender neutral toilets to name a few things that were tried.  But many of the techniques that were used were firmly rooted in equity, and I believe it is these which probably had the most impact.  

From BBC Documentary – No More Boys & Girls

These were the interventions which provided the children with a new narrative. Statements around the walls which said things like “Boys are sensitive” “Girls are strong” and “Boys are Caring” despite being balanced with the opposite statements (e.g. “Boys are Strong”) reinforced messages that boys and girls rarely hear, which challenge gendered norms.

There’s been a lot of discussion about gender stereotypes in books recently, and this featured in the programme.  Graham was asked to remove gendered books from his bookcase (though it’s not clear exactly what was done) to create a more neutral bookcase.  But then they added in books which challenged the stereotypes – with alternatives to the macho men and passive women who we are used to finding in many books.  And not only that, but we see Graham having conversations with the children about these books, exploring their reactions, and unpicking what this all meant. Again this is equity, not neutrality.  We saw the children being challenged.  And we saw how powerful it was!

The programme described evidence which showed girls lower self confidence and scores around maths, and the class undertook an experiment in spatial awareness (a key component of STEM subjects).  Firstly it demonstrated by way of another experiment (where adults were asked to choose toys for an infant who they were told was a boy or a girl) that when adults choose toys for children these are often along very gendered lines which see little boys being given the toys that are more likely to help them develop these spatial awareness skills – building blocks, robots, cars (things that can be manipulated).   By providing the girls in the class with the opportunity to practice the tangrams that were used they were able to show that when they were given the opportunity to practice these skills they could improve.  The seemingly “natural” difference between the boys and the girls could be easily overcome.

We heard from neuroscientist Gina Rippon about how exposure (or lack of) to tasks affects ability and brain development, and how ability and performance can be improved through practice.  She explained that structurally there is little difference between the brains of boys and girls, so if you were to look at a picture of a brain you could not tell with any certainty if it belonged to a male or female.  However the mouldability of brains means that they will be different based on our experiences, interactions, and upbringing – which are inherently gendered.  

She also said something which I think is really important.  She said (to paraphrase) “If you are better at something, you enjoy doing it more.”  It feels like what we are creating with these stereotypes is a self perpetuating cycle. For example – we believe that girls prefer dolls so we don’t give her the Lego –  because she doesn’t get the chance to she doesn’t develop those spatial awareness skills and develops a belief that she is “bad at it” –  so she doesn’t enjoy playing with Lego so avoids it and other similar activities and never improves on these skills – then we use this as evidence that girls naturally prefer to play with dolls.  Equitable approaches which allow children the opportunity to try things they might not normally be encouraged to (because of the stereotypes) are one way we can break this cycle.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which the programme used equity to challenge gender stereotypes with the children.  I’d encourage you to watch the programme to see more.  It was a joy to see the impact that all of this had on Graham and the children, to see the little girl who cried when she outperformed her low expectations on the strength test, or the amazement on the faces of the boys as they met with and were taught by a male ballet dancer.  I’ve said it before and I will say it again – gender stereotypes are limiting our children – so let’s provide a new narrative and ensure that no options are closed to them.

Bravo for No More Boys and Girls for showing us the way!

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap