My experience of becoming an early childhood educator is not an uncommon one. Though I came from a large family and had been told throughout my adolescence how good I was with children, I had never really considered it as a career. In 2005 I was between jobs and had the opportunity to work as educator support in a Long Day Care setting. This was the first time that I realised that working with children was something I not only wanted to do, but wanted to know more about. I began undertaking my ‘Certificate III in Children’s Services’ during the evenings while I worked.
It was during one of these night classes that I encountered the topic of gender. Gender as a word was familiar to me, however, I realised quickly how little I really understood about it. That evening left a lasting impression. It opened my eyes to the restrictions placed on individuals by society and their gendered expectations. It made me question ideas that I had always considered to be facts of life. Even more importantly, it made me think about how these ideas can impact on children in the early years.
Throughout my entire undergraduate education journey, proceeding from certificate to diploma and then gaining my bachelor degree, I never encountered this again. Some subjects would include brief discussions on gender. They would focus on what we should not do in the setting but never what we could do to make a difference. “You must never say good girl or good boy”, we were told repeatedly.
It was no surprise that when I commenced postgraduate studies I chose to research gender in early childhood and educator practice surrounding this. It was not lost on me, however, that my motivation could be traced to that one single night class. This made me feel both grateful and concerned about the knowledge, or lack thereof, that other early childhood educators were receiving in this area.
My research both at Honours and PhD level explored early childhood teachers’ experiences with gender in their settings, the challenges that they face, the guidance that is (or isn’t) available to them, and what they feel they need to provide gender equity in their programs. I had the opportunity to have in-depth conversations with multiple early childhood teachers during my research and was interested to note that there were many common themes that came through their responses. One of the key themes centred on confusion about practice, expectations, and even terminology.
Terminology around gender
The terminology surrounding gender is commonly misused and misunderstood. Throughout my research the word gender was used to refer to aspects of gender, sex and sexuality. While gender can be defined as a social construct “that identifies particular acts or performances that are understood to be appropriate to one sex” (Bohan, 1997, p. 13), sex refers to “anatomical or chromosomal categories” (Walker & Cook, 1998, p. 255), and sexuality refers to “the capacity for sexual feelings…a person’s sexual orientation or preference” (Dowsett, 2017, p. 275). The word gender has often been used interchangeably for sex (Haig, 2004). It quickly became evident to me that there was a deeper confusion underlying this. When I asked questions about the participants’ understanding of gender identity, I received responses around identity, feminism, gender roles, bodies, society, homosexuality, diverse gender identities and more.
The confusion around terminology of gender can also be seen in relation to children. According to Pogrebin (1998) there is an assumed link between gender roles and sexuality in young children. This is particularly evident in three areas. Firstly, it has been found that people often assume that gender roles determine a child’s sexuality. Secondly, some believe that it is the environment and the people around the child that make them homosexual or queer. Thirdly, informed by the presence of cultural homophobia, it can be seen that homosexuality or queerness is not desirable or acceptable. The first two areas, in particular, are widely accepted across society, despite research suggesting that gender roles do not link directly with sexuality (Cahill & Adams, 1997; Pogrebin, 1980), while research has indicated that the third area, cultural homophobia, can be pervasive in Australia (Hamilton & Flood, 2008; Willis, 2012)
Gender identity in children
There are multiple approaches to understanding the ways in which children begin to recognise and experience gender. Research into gender identity development in children has emerged from a range of fields, including psychology, sociology and education. My research utilised queer theory and a feminist post-structuralist approach to understanding gender development in children and making suggestions for practice in this area.
My exploration of the literature indicated that children often become aware of gendered behaviours between the ages of two and three (Ebbeck, 1998). Their understandings of gender can develop, evolve and become more rigid throughout early childhood. In fact, research has found that from the ages of four and five upwards children begin to segregate themselves based on sex and gendered expectations (Creaser & Dau, 1996). Children’s understanding of femininity and masculinity is an individual and internal process. Children begin to form their understanding of gender through interactions and conversations with others, observations of those around them, the social world, representation in popular culture and more (Blaise, 2009; MacNaughton, 1998).
Children’s gender identities are often performed based on these experiences, which then perpetuates their understanding of what gender roles ‘should’ entail (MacNaughton, 1996). Learning gender can be an ongoing struggle by children to interpret and make sense of the messages around them (Davies, 1989; Walkerdine, 1990). This struggle can be present in early childhood settings and is validated when children are rewarded for acting ‘appropriately’ to their gender and punished when deviating (Ewing & Taylor, 2009). This can be as subtle as an educator tolerating behaviours from one child but not from another.
It is therefore important that early childhood educators know how to identify any potentially limiting gender stereotypes that are being perpetuated in their settings. In addition, educators need to know how to counter these with expansive messages that allow children to explore their gender identities without being restricted by preconceived ideas that they may have received about gendered expectations. The trick can be in knowing how to spot these and how to counter them. This can be particularly difficult as children are sometimes the main policers of gender stereotypes. In addition, these stereotypes can be present in all aspects of life. Popular culture, in particular, is one area that is present in most aspects of a child’s life.
The presence of gender stereotypes in popular culture represented in early childhood settings
Popular culture can have a strong influence on young children’s gender identity development (Prioletta, 2015). Through the presence of movies, TV shows, toys, books and more, children are surrounded by gendered expectations. The messages in popular culture can be heavily stereotyped, and may also contain contrasting ideas. The movie Frozen is a good example of the conflicts and mixed messages for young children. The film contains heteronormative ideals and gender stereotypes, alongside messages of empowerment and feminism (Rudloff, 2016). This contrast may be challenging for children to interpret. In addition, the presence of heavily stereotyped behaviours in popular culture can send the message to children that there is a way that they must behave in order to ‘belong’ to a certain gender. One study found that young girls experienced stress in having to compete with expectations of gender behaviours from popular culture (Servos et al., 2016).
Media messages and popular culture have become “powerful agents in the social construction of gender” (Prioletta, 2015, p. 16). Through socialisation and marketing, popular culture appears to have a direct impact on children’s preferences for toys that are “designed, packaged, and marketed to correspond with their masculine or feminine identities” (Kahlenberg & Hein, 2009, p. 830). In the context of children’s popular culture, representation is crucially linked to the reproduction of social norms and ideals (Lindstrand, Insulander, & Selander, 2016). Gender is often viewed as a contentious area of education by the media and broader society (Robinson, Smith & Davies, 2017); however, this view indicates that there are larger underlying discourses at play. The confusion around terminology, the assumptions about the links between gender and sexuality for children, and the presence of cultural homophobia may fuel this controversy. This is also evident through popular culture, which continues to relegate queer and gender diverse identities to the margins. It can be said that it is the role of the educator to help children to question the norms presented and expand their view of the opportunities available to them. The contentious nature of this topic, however, may impact on educators’ willingness and confidence in taking on this role. Educators are often unwilling or uncertain of how “to mediate popular culture texts with gendered messages” (Wolhwend, 2009, p. 80).
The early childhood educator’s role in providing gender equitable programs
While I have outlined the importance of early childhood educators actively addressing limiting gender stereotypes in their settings, there are many aspects to consider first. Educators bring with them their own life experiences, views of the world and understanding of gender. One potential factor of educators’ perceptions of children’s gender identities could be gender bias, which is often based on deeply held values and beliefs (Snowman, et al., 2009). Gender bias can be so subtle that the individual may be unaware of its presence (MacNaughton, Rolfe & Siraj-Blatchford, 2001). Educators’ perceptions and biases can impact on their own awareness of opportunities in which they can encourage children to challenge limiting gender stereotypes. It is necessary that educators consider their personal biases and actively work to ensure that these do not impact on the opportunities for play, investigation and exploration offered to children. It is important to “consider the ways that teachers’ practices might be encouraging or discouraging participation in activities” (Tonyan & Howes, 2003, p. 138-139). Educators can refer to policy documents as support for many areas of practice in early childhood education, however, there are areas around which policy is seen to be silent (Sumsion, & Wong, 2011). Gender is one of these.
The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) (DEEWR, 2009) is at the core of early childhood educators’ practice. It is the national guiding framework that advises educators on the outcomes they should be striving to achieve for each child. It was not designed to be prescriptive a document (Kearns, 2017); rather it is supposed to be useable with any of the multitude of teaching styles and philosophies that are used by educators across Australia. While the EYLF does not give direct instructions on what must be taught, it does provide educators with five overarching outcomes that they should work towards (DEEWR, 2009). It also includes some suggestions for how each outcome might be represented in practice. It is within the first outcome, “children have a strong sense of identity”, that gender is mentioned. The framework outlines the concept of identity, stating that educators should provide for children’s diverse interests, respect their backgrounds and cultures and help “children [in] developing an awareness of their social and cultural heritage, of gender and their significance in their world” (DEEWR, 2009, p. 23). This quote is one of only three times that gender is directly mentioned in the EYLF. The other two times were used as part of the definition for inclusion (DEEWR, 2009, p. 27 & 48). The framework is almost completely silent around the topic of gender. There are no suggestions for ways that educators can work to provide gender equitable environments or help children to develop a strong sense of identity despite the onslaught of messages that tell them who they should be.
What early childhood teachers are saying about gender in their settings
During focus groups and interviews that I conducted with the early childhood teachers, I heard about their experiences during tertiary education. A few mentioned gaining some knowledge on gender during their degrees, however multiple participants stated that gender was hardly covered during their years of study. I also frequently heard about the lack of guidance and support available to them around gender. Participants discussed outcome 1 of the EYLF (DEEWR, 2009), some stating that some of the suggestions surrounding identity could be applied broadly, others emphasising that there were no clear answers or suggestions around gender, and many informing me that they felt unsure how to address it in their settings.
Multiple participants referred to their concerns and confusion over their role in supporting and developing children’s gender identities. In a number of the interviews, the participants asked me for guidance on how to handle situations that had arisen in their settings. These often involved families, sometimes coworkers and occasionally management. They always involved a child who was exploring outside of the ‘typical’ gendered norms. Many teachers stated that they had felt pressure from families to ensure that their child did not engage in behaviours that they considered to be abnormal or outside of social norms. Often these behaviours revolved around a child’s choice of playmates, toys and dress-ups, quite commonly linked to aspects of popular culture.
The participants mentioned that children who were interested in, or dressed up as, popular culture characters of the ‘same sex’ were seen as acceptable, whereas children who were interested in popular culture characters of the ‘opposite sex’ were sometimes met with dismayed reactions from children and families. Several participants mentioned that these dismayed reactions occurred more commonly with boys dressing as female characters than girls doing the opposite.
Some teachers wanted to know how they could tell if a child was experimenting and playing around with gender norms, or if they were gender diverse. They also wanted to know what they could and should be doing to support them. Some questioned if they should be working with parents to make changes in relation to gender. Multiple times during the interviews and focus groups, participants referred to sexuality, sex and family diversity, among other topics. Many participants expressed uncertainty about the presence of sexuality in the early childhood setting, a few referring to children being sexualised by society. Others expressed their concerns over how to mention same-sex and/or gender diverse families without backlash.
Many of the educators were deeply engaged and intrigued by my research topic and eager to know more about gender development in children. My research findings strongly suggest the need for further training, resources and guidance for educators in the area of gender. It is important that educators are aware of and understand gender and how to incorporate this knowledge into their work with children. Simply ignoring the presence of gendered identities in the setting is not enough and can be counterproductive and harmful. Children receive messages about gender from multiple sources and it is important for the educator to provide children with the tools to question gender inequities and limitations caused by gender stereotypes.
Early childhood educators may benefit greatly from support in the areas around gender that they perceive to be contentious, in order to build their confidence in approaching these topics with children. Support could be provided through expanded education at tertiary level, professional development for educators in the workplace, and the provision of a variety of materials. These could include books, toys, posters and other resources that could be used with children. Many of the educators suggested that the development of policy or a guiding document in this area would be beneficial to their future practice. Regardless of the type, it is quite evident that support is needed in this area to assist educators to truly help children to have a ‘strong sense of identity’.
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Rachel Chapman is preparing to submit her PhD on early childhood educators’ understanding of gender and how this impacts on their practice. She has presented her work at multiple conferences in Australia and overseas. She was recently a finalist in the grand final of RMIT’s ‘Three minute thesis competition’, where she summarised her 80,000 word thesis in less than 3 minutes. She is also a lecturer in early childhood education at RMIT University and has delivered classes in Australia and China. She has a decade of experience working in the early childhood sector.
 Educator is a term used in Australia to denote a person who works within any level of early childhood education and care while the term teacher specifically refers to those who have completed a tertiary qualification.