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Educating the educators: stereotyping starts in the early years

November 25, 2014

What is the link between children’s play and gender inequality?

What role do early childhood educators have to play in ending violence against women?

As the world unites in the solidarity of White Ribbon Day, Thea Hughes spoke recently with YMCA’s Scott Holmes about their innovative pilot, ‘Y Respect Gender Project’. The three-year pilot, funded by VicHealth as part of their Creating Healthy Workplaces Program, has focused on the public health issue of gender equality and respectful relationships and their connection with men’s violence against women, which is the leading contributor to poor health for women between 15 and 44.

TH: Scott, tell me a bit about how the aims of the project and how it came about?

SH: Through the Y Respect Gender Project, YMCA Victoria is exploring strategies to build a stronger gender respectful culture in different parts of the organisation. This includes within its children services’, which operates long day care and early learning centres out of six sites in Melbourne’s west.
Across Australian and in many parts of the world there has been an increasing focus in recent years on working with children to assist them in developing the skills to have healthy, respectful relationships. Most of this has been happening in the secondary sector, and more recently in the primary sector. Now we are realising that this important work has to happen even earlier if we are to build a society in which gender roles and stereotypes do not imprison us for life.

TH: What was the format of the project?

SH: We put together a training program to raise awareness of issues surrounding gender stereotypes, educating staff about the potential existence of their own gender biases, as well as biases they may encounter while caring for children and interacting with parents in the early childhood learning setting.

The recreation centres along with some of our early learning centres were a great place to start the pilot program, particularly in light of some of the issues staff had reportedly encountered – both personally and professionally.

TH: What were those issues – because I’m guessing that they’re not uncommon?

SH: They were tackling questions such as ‘how do we best challenge young children exhibiting gender stereotypical behaviour?’; ‘how can we encourage parents not to be anxious when their daughters play with trucks?’; along with educators wondering what role they have to play in tackling sexism and disrespectful behaviour when they encounter it either from parents or children in their workplace.

Staff in our early learning centres are now keenly aware of how much even young children display a need to conform to the unspoken expectations of what is ‘proper’ for their sex, whether that be the toys they play with, the clothes they wear, or the things they talk about.

Kids also from a young age ‘police’ each other’s behaviour. For instance, on dress up day at one centre, the boys were quick to tell a girl who had come dressed as batman, that ‘only boys can be batman’. In these situations, the response of staff is crucial to providing these children with other ways to think about the world around them and to expand the possibilities of how they might relate to that world.

At one of our centres the manager had to deal with a father who was irate that his son had come home with a hair tie in his hair
But it has also been as much to do with the delicate balance of tackling these issues with parents.

As adults, many of us are still unconscious of the ways we confuse sex and gender, or gender and sexual orientation, or of the ideas about gender that we have unquestioningly inherited from our family, religion or culture. Often it is not until their children attend care that parents may have been confronted with these issues.

TH: Given how deeply entrenched those learnings can be, I imagine that can be quite challenging?

SH: At one of our centres the manager had to deal with a father who was irate that his son had come home with a hair tie in his hair. Unravelling, let alone challenging, the assumptions inherit in his reaction required great confidence from the manager. These situations are a reminder that our centres need to communicate our commitment to gender equality in all that we do, including, for example, the images in our advertising brochures, and the other activities that happen within the centre.

TH: Where to now for the project?

SH: An evaluation of the project is being conducted by La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), and the results of this evaluation will be released by VicHealth. In the interim, it is already apparent from the responses of our staff in the children’s services area and other areas that this project is striking a chord in our workplace and in our society. For some, it is welcome, and for others it can be quite confronting.

However the daily news stories of domestic violence are a constant reminder that we cannot be complacent about these matters.

A culture that is complacent about gender stereotypes and sexist behaviour is a culture that is sowing the seeds for gender inequality and violence against women.

Men’s violence against women can be prevented – and that prevention starts with the way we treat our children.

TH: Scott, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us at Play Unlimited. It’s been great to learn more about the work that you’re doing and we look forward to hearing about the results of the evaluation when it is released.

Post By Thea Hughes (18 Posts)

Thea spent more than a decade working in a heavily male-dominated industry, inspiring her to begin her formal studies in gender at Sydney University and to found Play Unlimited. As a parent, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.

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