Should We Be Talking About Sexism in Early Childhood Education?

The short answer to the question posed in the title is yes. While it may seem as though the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements have nothing to do with young children, the experts tell us that sexism does indeed begin in early childhood. In fact, psychology professor and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, Christia Spears Brown, told me in a recent interview for Studentcentricity, that sexism begins at birth! And when we consider the pink and blue phenomenon – and how differently girl babies are treated from boy babies, even prenatally – we have to admit that what she says makes sense.

Sexism begins with gender stereotyping, which is all too easy to reinforce. Christia and other experts contend that every time teachers say something like, “Good morning, boys and girls,” attention is given to gender. And the more often statements like these are made (“Boys line up here, girls line up there.” “What a good girl you’re being.”), the more children get the message that gender matters – a lot. And that’s when they start making black-and-white generalizations about the meaning of gender.

Yes, I know; statements like these seem perfectly innocent! But what if they’re not?

According to a Slate article on this topic, “The more ingrained kids’ gender stereotypes become, the more easily they conclude that girls are inferior to boys—that boys have higher status because they biologically deserve it.” Studies have also shown that “the more strongly boys believe these stereotypes, the more likely they are to make sexual comments, to tell sexual jokes in front of girls, and to grab women.”

Those are two statements that make me want to cry – especially considering that Christia told me 90% of girls in high school have been sexually harassed.

That’s a stunning statistic, but perhaps one that shouldn’t surprise me, considering how many #MeToo hashtags I saw just on my own Facebook account. And, of course, I posted the hashtag as well. When I was 19 years old I was fired from a job for refusing to be “mauled” by the assistant manager, who felt it was his right to paw all of the young women in the office. He told the manager that my work was lacking, when nothing could have been further from the truth. But nobody asked me; the manager just took the creep’s word for it.

Unfortunately, at the time no one used the phrase “sexual harassment” and there was certainly nowhere to turn for justice. So, I slunk home, and it wasn’t long after that I decided working in the “outside world” wasn’t right for me; and I began working from home. It was lonely, but at least the only paws I encountered belonged to my cats!

Although written specifically for parents, I highly recommend you read the Slate article. There’s also my article, “Teaching Girls They’re More Than a Pretty Face.” It addresses the fact that girls are too often admired for appearance only – something that contributes to their own belief that they are “less than.”

Christia and my other two guests, educators Jill Berkowicz and Jason Flom, suggested that teachers embrace the power of gender neutrality in the classroom. Specifically, they advocated for removing gender from the language used (“Boys will be boys.”), for making sure girls play in the block area and boys in the dress-up area, and for ensuring that girls and boys play together. Quoted in the Slate article, child development expert Carol Martin says, ““When they interact with each other like this, both girls and boys learn about each other and their similarities, become more comfortable with one another, and we believe that it may provide a kind of social resiliency allowing them to deal with a range of social experiences.”

Finally, if you hear a child say something like, “Girls can’t do that,” or “Only boys are allowed here”…well, talk about your teachable moment! You can either address it and ensure the kids get a lesson in gender equality, or you can let it slide. But the latter will teach them too. It will teach them that gender does indeed matter…and not in a good way.

Christia assured me that small things can have a lasting impact. And I sure hope that’s true, because small things are easily done. But, of course, as with everything that matters, the hard part begins with our own awareness.

To listen to the 10-minute discussion that inspired this post, click here.


  • Andrew says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I’d like to add that sexism also hurts all of the boys who are told they need to more “manly.” Masculinity is overtly thrown in boy’s faces daily. While I don’t have any empirical data, I’m willing to bet that it is at the top of the list of tools for bully boys.

    • Rae says:

      Andrew, I agree that it also hurts boys! I remember my younger brother being “bullied” by adult family members because he had a sailor doll that he loved. It was extremely hurtful. Yet somehow he still managed to grow up to become a loving, nurturing father.

  • Manuela says:

    I absolutely disagree with this article. I have worked almost my whole life with children.
    Children need to be taught to be kind, respectful and inclusive. Everyone deserves respect no matter who they are or what they look like. We focus way to much on categories and on what separates us instead of that we are all the same underneath, a person that wants to be loved, accepted and respected. That is what we need to talk about with them. How to treat people in a kind and loving way. How to help them and how to make them smile. That everyone matters. People are so driven by what they are entitled to that they forget all about the people around them. When you teach kindness, values, inclusiveness and helpfulness, then problems like bullying and sexism will be gone.

    • Rae says:

      Manuela, thanks for your input. Actually, I don’t see that your point of view and mine are mutually exclusive! I completely agree that children need to be taught to be kind, respectful, and inclusive. That’s why I advocate for using comments like “Girls can’t play here” as teachable moments — and why I recommend offering boys and girls opportunities to play together. And I couldn’t possibly agree more that “everyone deserves respect no matter who they are or what they look like.” It is specifically for that reason that I don’t want boys to be encouraged to “big and strong” (playing only in the construction area) and girls to be “soft and pretty” (playing only with the dolls). Those are the categories that unfairly divide children by gender and put them into boxes. It was indeed one of my points that we not focus on what separates us, but rather on the similarities among boys and girls.

      Thank you for your many years of working with children.

  • Cal Towler says:

    I married a girl, a female, an incredible woman who was as different from me as she could be. I am so glad for the differences we possessed. She was a teenager when our wedding took place. I was a ruddy-faced sailor. We were married for 63 years at the time of her home-going. I was her hospice caregiver. She was my best friend and mentor in many things. I learned so much about life from her and love. She taught me how to cook; I taught her how to fish. She was more successful than I was. She tried to teach me how to play the piano; I tried to teach her the Greek language – we both failed. She also taught our daughters how to cook and bake all sort of gourmet goodies. So, what is all of this confusion about gender – this PC nonsense – boys and girls are wonderfully different. Hopefully, America’s schools will celebrate the differences.

    • Rae says:

      Cal, of course you’re glad for the differences you and your wife possessed! No one is suggesting we should all be the same. There are many differences between males and females, as well as similarities. I’m just asking that we not reinforce stereotypes that make one seem “better than” and the other “less than.” That’s where the danger lies. And PC or not, women through the ages have paid — and continue to pay — a hefty price as a result of gender stereotypes. And, as Andrew mentioned, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for men either.

      All of that said, I’m happy for you. A 63-year marriage is a wonderful thing.

      • Cal Towler says:

        Thanks for the response.
        I worked as a social worker and therapist with institutionalized sexually and physically abused kids for forty years. During all of these years, I hired, supervised and worked side-by-side with well educated, state licensed, very professional, compassionate male and female mental health practitioners who were paid equally. Thanks for starting this discussion. Cal

        • Rae says:

          Bless you for the important work you did! And thank you for the reassurance that sometimes men and women are actually paid equally. I have a friend who’s been in commercial insurance for over 30 years. She is knowledgeable, diligent, and caring. Still, whenever the company hires a man — typically much younger and with far less experience — he automatically earns more than she does and is usually given a VP title. I have another friend who until recently worked in corporate child care, for an organization paying its male VPs $50,000 more/year than its female VPs! That is appalling!! So, yes, I do believe it’s an important discussion. Thanks for joining it, Cal!

  • Karen Sheaffer says:

    I was a graduate student at Tufts University, Dept of Child Study (it has since been renamed). A graduate student did a brilliant study of gender stereotyping. Using a perfectly matched sample of male and female newborns (matched for birth weight, Apgar score, length) the parents were asked to simply, describe their newborn. You can imagine the ways the babies were described–for the boys, they are strong, big, tough, etc and the girls, delicate, sweet, vulnerable, etc.

    • Rae says:

      Yes! I’ve heard of that — or a similar — study, Karen! In one study I read about, babies were dressed in blue or pink and the adults were told those in blue were boys and those in pink were girls, regardless of whether or not that was true. The results were the same as those you mention.

      I write and speak a lot about the unrealistic expectations we place on children when it comes to their development (e.g., soccer for 3-year-olds and reading in preschool). But this topic is also about expectations. We expect boys to be a certain way and girls to be another way, and because they’re anxious to please the important people in their lives, they do their best to comply. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could just let them figure out for themselves who and what they want to be?

    • Jane says:

      Karen, although I have not heard of that study, I have a difficult time imagining any newborn being described as tough. They are sweet, adorable, cute, so small, etc. but never tough. I am a mother of two boys, they were not described as tough newborns by anyone and I’m not sure I’d describe them as tough as adults. Fine men now, but not tough.

      • Rae says:

        Jane, I did a quick search of this kind of study online, and although I couldn’t find a specific reference to “tough,” I did find “strong” used as a adjective — by both adult and child raters — used to describe babies they were told were boys.

  • Jane says:

    Thank you for this article. After reading it, I do find I disagree with you in several areas. As a now retired early childhood educator I see nothing wrong with calling a girl a girl or vice versa. I agree that it’s perfectly ok for a boy to play with dolls or a girl to play with trucks. I would never tell a child that’s a girl or a boy toy. My granddaughters both love LEGO’s and the little one has a set of trains to go with her train rug. And, of course, children should be taught to respect each other and be kind. However, girls and boys are different and will not always enjoy the same toys. It’s OK. It doesn’t make one sex better than the other. And not every boy who is told they are strong when they show those little muscles will be an abuser because of it. Boys and girls are different and those differences should be celebrated rather than minimized. Equality does not mean sameness.

    • Rae says:

      You’re very welcome, Jane. I’m glad it’s been a catalyst for thought and discussion! However, I feel as though I must not have expressed myself adequately, because it was not my intention at all to imply that boys and girls are the same. There are similarities, but there are indeed differences as well. And, yes, differences are to be celebrated — but only if they’re true differences and not a result of gender stereotyping. If you explore the research, you’ll see many experts, based on their studies, contend that adult language truly does lead to gender stereotyping among children. Here’s one article you might appreciate reading:

      By the way, the thought of your granddaughter playing with a train set put a huge smile on my face!

  • Jane says:

    Thanks for your reply Rae. I acknowledge that stereotyping does happen. When I was young there were basically 3 things a woman could be besides a mother: a nurse, a teacher or a secretary. I’ve been two of the three. The options for girls today are endless. I think that parents and teachers should make available all sorts of toys and experiences and encourage both girls and boys to explore them. But what happens when a girl or a boy begins gravitating to toys or activities more than others. I’m not going to make a girl play with trucks if she’d rather play with dolls or vice versa. I stand by my statement that girls and boys are different and will probably want to play with some different toys at some point. I don’t think it’s stereotyping to let a girl play with dolls if that is what she wants to do. Where I struggle is with how much of a girl choosing to play with dolls is the result of stereotyping. And then with the idea of how wrong it is. Finally, I don’t believe that the outright division of boy and girl activities is nearly as prevelant as it was when I was growing up. It certainly isn’t that obvious where I used to work. But I do agree that as adults we shouldn’t put girls in a pink box and boys in a blue one but rather make available a variety of activities and toys and let them follow their interests without judgement.

    • Rae says:

      Jane, I completely agree that girls and boys will probably want to play with some different toys at some point — and I would never advise refusing to let them, or “making” them play with something they don’t want to play with. Again, I must not be expressing myself very clearly.

      My issue is with expectations and with limiting opportunities for children to explore toys, books, etc., typically regarded as being for one gender or another. Or, worse, discouraging girls and boys from playing with toys typically regarded as being for the “other” gender.

      Nadia Jaboneta and Deb Curtis wrote a wonderful piece called “Challenging Gender Stereotypes” for the latest issue of Teaching Young Children (amazing timing). Two of their suggestions were:
      – Be aware of the gendered messages and images in our books, materials, and classrooms, and take time to talk about any examples the children come across.
      – Continue to model behavior that challenges gender stereotypes and bring this behavior to the children’s attention.

      What if a female teacher were to model playing with construction materials, and a male teacher to demonstrate nurturing behavior in the dramatic play area?

  • Anonymous says:

    When was this article published? I need the date for a school assignment

  • Peggy says:

    Thank you for this important article! This language is so embedded in our vernacular and it takes effort and self-awareness to change this and challenge ourselves to do better. I’ve been teaching in early childhood for 16 years now and I consider myself to be a feminist. In my classroom this year, I only have 3 boys and all 3 exhibit challenging behaviors, especially when they are together. I caught myself this week asking them to choose a girl to sit next to at circle time, so they wouldn’t sit next to each other. I immediately thought “why would you say it that way?” We have to be very conscious of the language we use and be willing to push ourselves to do better. Thanks again for your article. I’m enjoying reading your posts!

    • Rae says:

      Thank you so much for your input and insights, Peggy! You’re so right; so much of what we say is habitual and part of a longstanding culture. But your self-awareness give me hope!

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