Why do we have such a persistent imbalance in the early years workforce, which is still stubbornly 97% female? It’s not a coincidence that there is also still an imbalance in parenting roles in many families, with mothers often shouldering a disproportionate amount of responsibility for childcare – this, I must emphasise, IS improving very noticeably, but there is still a long way to go.

The perception that women are ‘naturally’ more caring has been comprehensively debunked by the scientific evidence – if you’re not convinced about how much of our attitudes and behaviour is socially constructed by societal norms, or if you’re interested in understanding how and why we’ve ended up with polarised gender stereotypes, I heartily recommend Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, and another of her books, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myth of our Gendered Brains. Angela Saini’s Inferior – The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It is another great read, as is Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to embark on a reading spree, however, you really don’t need to go much further than the shopping centre to see and understand the problem. Consider these two wordclouds, which show the words most often used in TV toy advertising:


I don’t even need to explain which is which. Children’s clothes reflect the same messages, with girls’ shoes being far less suitable for playing football in the playground than boys’, and with messages that reinforce the stereotypical perception of girls as kind and gentle, with hero messaging saved for the boys. And if, like me, you hoped that the Thomas the Tank Engine type of sidelining of females was a thing of the past, take a look at the characters in Paw Patrol!!

In the context of rising levels of gender dysphoria in teenagers, gender stereotyping is insidious, preventing a way of being that is free from the control of gendered ‘rules’ and expectations. If you’re a boy who loves sparkly accessories and dressing up, or a girl who wants to climb trees and drive dumper trucks, that shouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but even when early years professionals are careful to encourage gender neutrality in their provision, children often ‘police’ gender roles themselves, and we all know that children need to feel that they ‘belong’ in their peer group, so we need to be more proactive to combat societal ‘norms.’ Thankfully, our inspirational Lionesses have rescued football for us, and schools have moved a long way since my day, when girls did domestic science and boys did metalwork. But gendered advertising for toys and clothes is still ubiquitous, with ‘gender reveal’ events encouraging stereotyping even before birth.

So why have I called this a journey to gender equity and not gender equality? Because more effort is needed to challenge the stereotypical assumptions that children inherit from their parents. Allowing girls to play football is great, but it’s not enough. We need to address the underlying sexism in society. It’s important, not just ‘PC’ to give firefighters and police officers gender-neutral terms, and ‘woke’ is not a term we should be embarrassed to give ourselves, if we are aware of the subliminal messages all around us, and the micro-discriminations that all add up to reinforcing inequalities in the status quo. Gendered expectations limit the potential for both girls and boys, with gender stereotypes contributing to mental health problems, including low self-esteem, anxiety about body image, eating disorders, higher male suicide rates and violence against women and girls. Gender equity is about being proactive in promoting gender equality, not just hoping that things will improve of their own accord. There is no magic bullet, but there are numerous initiatives that are working to improve the situation.

One of these is the Fawcett Society’s campaigns, to smash stereotypes, and to close the gender play gap https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/closing-the-gender-play-gap

The fabulous https://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/ is also doing great work, and the Fatherhood Institute has started a petition that I urge you all to sign. It’s supported by the great team at PregnantThenScrewed and argues for a long-overdue rethink of parental leave – see the economic argument at https://pregnantthenscrewed.com/boosting-paternity-leave-has-economic-benefits/.  It’s not just about economics – dads need to be given the opportunity to bond with their babies, and we need more men in early years. It’s important for children to see men caring for babies and young children – and for men to be given the opportunity to realise how rewarding it can be.

Please do take a moment to sign: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/640814


Zoe Raven