Gender Stereotypes in the Primary School

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As human beings we are constantly surrounded by knowledge which is gendered according to Eckert and McConnell (2013, p.9), therefore when children come into primary schools they are already able to distinguish between gender, gender identities and gender roles as a result of socialization in the home environment Atay and Danju (2012, p.65). However, spending majority of their time with their teachers in school, accentuates the existing understanding due to the expectations that teachers have about learners and their gender and this ultimately has a huge influence in the way that gender and gender inequality is constructed more especially in primary schools. In this essay I will be discussing how and why the primary school is an important site for the construction of gender inequalities, more especially I will focus on how gender is socially constructed, how this gender construction contributes, produces and reproduces these inequalities.

Understanding how gender is socially constructed

Gender is not easily defined as there are a number of definitions and perceptions which exist in literature. However, I have chosen two definitions that relate the most to my overall understanding of the term ‘gender’. Firstly, (Ford, 2011, p.23) defines gender as, “A social process that is constructed by hegemonic notions about maleness and femaleness which comes into play in the practices of everyday life”. However, Butler (2004, p.176) describes gender as something which is socially learnt and continually practiced such as masculine and feminine roles and ways of behaving that create the impression of masculinity and femininity. For that reason, if gender is considered to be a social process as the above definitions allude that therefore means that gender is socially produced, created and constructed. For instance, the way in which one behaves and presents oneself in relation to societal expectations and this perception and understanding can be learnt and unlearnt. Simone de Beauvoir (as cited by Eckert and McConnell, 2013, p. 10), states that, “Gender is not something that we are born with and not something we have, but something we do”, hence the latter strongly relates with my opinion that gender is learnt through various messages that are sent by society such as behavior which is acceptable and unacceptable for boys and for girls.

Furthermore, gender construction is closely linked to gender socialization where we learn how to become members of a certain group, following the norms and laws within that particular group or society, as a result, Kegestan et. al (2016, p. 16) assert that the way that we are, behave and think is the most final product of the socialisation process. This gender socialisation begins from and even before the moment that we are born whereby the first question that is asked expectant parents is, “Is it a boy or is it a girl?” and if the response is that the child is a girl then the excitement tends to subside and I always ask myself why this is so. Our Watch (2018, p.7) allude that these messages seem to promote gender stereotypes, such as the colour of baby clothing signal i.e Pink for Girls and Blue or Green for boys, furthermore they will ask about sports that the boy child likes to play and will praise girls for how ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’ their outfit is and this in itself is gender socialization. Hence, from birth children are being moulded into what the society wants them to be.

Moreover, through socialization a gender binary is created where men and women are boxed into 2 groups and are polarized from each other. (Martin and Ruble, 2013, p.3) suggest that “most children develop the ability to label gender groups and to use gender labels in their speech between 18 and 24 months”. Halim and Ruble (2010, p.4) further discuss that this ability to label gender groups is due to the fact that the information about gender was related to increased play with strongly gender stereotyped toys. The allocation of specific toys to either girl children or boy children is a clear example of how children are expected to act or behave according to the gender they supposedly “belong” to. I expected to believe that toys that are gendered are used as tools to educate children differently to what is suited the most for their gender. For example, most girls are bought tea and cooking sets and dolls etc., this in itself indirectly teaches girls about being able to take care of the house hold and family on the contrary boys are bought cars, guns, sporting equipment and this indirectly teaches them that they have power and should resort to violence. Thus, “toys have the ability to indirectly inform young children about their future and even the career paths they should take later in life, leading to a continuous cycle of inequality across society” (Weisgrama, Fulcherb and Dinellac, 2014, p.403).

Understanding how constructing gender contributes to inequalities

Gender inequality simply means allowing people different opportunities due to their perceived differences based solely on gender, thus for a very long time, a distinction has always been made between men and women especially when it comes to their abilities and how society expects them to behave. Due to the fact that gender is a social construction, McNaughton (1997, p.318) maintains that society views women and men as counterparts due to their biological traits and their behavioral patterns. The societal expectations of both males and females and the difference between them within the same society is socially and culturally constructed and changes over time. Tabassum, Ashfaq, Kousar, Saghir and Amjad (2010, p.60) allude that these differences are reflected in the roles, responsibilities, access to resources, constraints, opportunities, needs, perceptions, views, etc., that are held by both women and men in their interdependent relationship. These differences then inevitably influence and promote gender roles and gender stereotypes resulting in division of labour into men and women’s work.

Due to these biological differences in both male and female bodies, males are deemed to be physically strong therefore they should participate in activities which enable them to use their physicality. Whereas females are assumed to have little or less physical power therefore they should participate in activities which require them to use their brains more than their physicality, this understanding of gender contributes to gender inequality because men and women are not given equal opportunities to prove their capabilities. (Connell, 1985, p.263) points out that males and females are not identical nor are they indistinguishable on all behaviour, preferences and abilities, however these differences in ability should be recognized and acknowledged when aiming for equality.

The polarization of girls and boys at a young age causes children to master and internalize this binary system where they unconsciously learn to discriminate based on gender and to also label themselves and others on the basis of sex. Further to that Mayeza (2015, p.5) discusses how children recognize attributes, attitudes, and behaviours that are typical of or considered to be appropriate for each sex, and to learn how to do what is seen as appropriate and to avoid what is not appropriate in a particular society. Ryle (2018, p.72) states that Gender polarization problematizes any person who deviates from these mutually exclusive scripts as unnatural, immoral, abnormal.

How Primary Schools Produce/Reproduce Gender hence Inequalities

The primary school is the place for children to learn, and Atay and Danju (2012, p.66) stress that children also learn appropriate gender roles from people who they interact with on a daily basis in the school environment, such as their teachers, peers and even the textbooks. Often children are perceived as passive and also as tabula rasa, however McNaughton (as cited by Mayeza, 2015, p.6) describes children as active participants in the gendering of their own personal identities and that of others. Therefore, gender socialization is a complex process which involves interactions between children themselves and children with significant others in their social networks, including parents, teachers and peers, and this occurs in the school environment.

Children who are in primary school seem to practice the gender stereotypes that are assigned to them. Bhana, Nzimakwe, Nzimakwe (2011, p.444) discuss extensively how schools create a border that separates children, hence, the stereotype and view that boys and girls should be apart or separate in society is further practiced and emphasized in schools. Thus, my experience resonates with the latter due to the fact that when I grew up I was constantly told that I must play with girls and never with boys and my mother’s reasoning behind that was due to the fact that boys and girls are not the same.

Furthermore, when I went to pre-school and primary school girls and boys were always separated, be it the playground, class seats, lining up procedures and even extra-mural activities. I do not remember being encouraged to be friends with a boy in school and I don’t remember ever being in close proximity with a boy or even having a positive interaction with a boy in Primary school, if ever I did have an interaction with a boy it was always a matter of us ridiculing each other, by calling each other ugly, fat etc. When being disciplined for teasing, teachers will tell girls that it is not lady like to speak like that. On the other hand, with boys, they will be exempted and the saying, “boys will be boys” will be used, Bhana (2002, p.54) discusses how these sayings are a powerful dictum as power has been attached to it, creating obvious inequality.

In particular, sports reproduce gender inequalities relentlessly, Mayeza (2015, p.10) refers to how majority of games which are played in schools are largely gendered, this is true as games and sports such as soccer and rugby are sports that are mainly played by boys and netball amd indigenous games are largely games which are played by girls. Further to this, from my own observation these sports are even given titles such as, ‘Boys Soccer’ and ‘Girls Hockey’. In my own childhood experience, it was unknown of to have a girls’ soccer or rugby team in the Primary school which I went to. Although all girls and boys are participating in some form of activity, however there was no freedom of choice to choose which sport you would like to play or even capable of playing, furthermore, to make matters worse, more attention and support was given to boys in terms of resources, professional coaches and exposure.

Moreover, textbooks tend to reproduce gender stereotypes as books reflect cultural values, norms and they are important instruments that teach young children to accept and learn those appropriate gender roles that exist in their own community Atay and Danju (2012, p.66). For example, I remember very distinctly a Life Skills textbook which had a picture of a woman in the home carrying a baby on her back and a broom in her hand and alongside her, her husband wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase and the caption was, ‘Behind every powerful man is a woman’.

This picture stuck in my mind for a very long time whereby I was of the belief that when I grow up I will stay at home and clean and look after my children and my husband will work and I will support him and his ambitions. Likewise, gender roles in textbooks reflect the development of society between women and men, indirectly teaching girls that they are in constant competition with their male counterparts. Teachers and schools play a significant role in reproducing gender inequalities when they use such textbooks and furthermore go to the extent of making examples which portrays one gender as better or more superior than the other.


In conclusion, gender is indeed a social construct and we are aware that even before children enter primary school they are to a certain extent cognizant and aware about their own personal gender identities and those of others and even societal expectations and expected behavior because of socialization within the home and in the community. However, when children enter into the school which is a central socialization space, gender inequalities are reproduced significantly through social interaction, play and even textbooks and the way in which the content is interpreted. Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge the primary school as a primary and crucial site for gender construction and the way in which gender is taught either directly or indirectly should not in any way disempower a certain group.


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Cite this paper

Gender Stereotypes in the Primary School. (2021, Jan 18). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/gender-stereotypes-in-the-primary-school/



How would you address gender stereotypes in the classroom?
Introduce students to people from real life who show there's more than one way to be a boy or a girl . Select stories for the classroom that don't play up gender stereotypes. Comment positively on stories that equally value all genders. Put kids into mixed-gender learning groups to encourage cross-gender friendships.
What are some educational stereotypes?
There are many educational stereotypes, but two common ones are that girls are better at English and boys are better at math.
What does gender stereotyping mean for kids?
Gender stereotyping means that kids are often treated differently based on their gender. This can lead to kids feeling like they have to behave a certain way or look a certain way in order to be accepted.
What is gender stereotype in education?
The Baby Boomer generation has a strong work ethic. They are willing to work hard to achieve their goals.
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