Children in the primary years of school learn much both in and out of the classroom. This is the time they begin reading, writing, and basic mathematics. During these crucial years they are also learning who they are and how they relate to the world around them. One important aspect of this development of self-concept is the idea of gender. Children bring to their primary years an understanding developed through home, community, and previous educational experiences of their own genders and those of others. However, gender concepts are often encouraged and reinforced significantly during the primary years, both in the classroom and through structured and unstructured play.
It is important to begin with an examination of what gender really is. Most research into genderhas been undertaken by those representing feminist, homosexual, orother non-traditional gender constructs, and possibly for this reasonhas received less attention in traditional media or education forums.This leads to a misunderstanding of gender, its implications on theindividual’s development, and its influence on the education and playof children. However, the conscious or unconscious attitudes towardsgender that surround children have great impact both on their conceptsof gender definition and their own understanding of their freedom todevelop a self-image within gender boundaries.
Gender and chromosomal sex are often confused in the minds of manypeople. A person is born with either male or female genitalia, which determines both their sex and gender. This is a misunderstanding of both gender and its development within the individual. Most people are born from a physical standpoint as either female or male, although somerare individuals are born with part or all of both physical attributes,and a rarer group with neither (). However, physical equipment is not the determinant of gender, society is. Most societies have historically held that physical “maleness” or “femaleness” determines gender, which then leads to the development of certain sexual desires,attributes and actions (Butler 1990). Physical differences werebelieved to create two distinct genders, male and female. Being a man,that is, having masculine desires and performing masculine actions, isdistinct and wholly separate from being a woman, with feminine desiresand performances. Masculine and feminine traits were believed to notbe a matter of choice, which caused all individuals to be classified as either male or female (Hawkesworth 1997). Importantly, this leads mostsocieties to value a heteronormality, and try to conform to themale/female binary or somehow bring under control anyone with desiresor actions outside of the these gender distinctions. (Gamson and Moon2004).
People who behave outside of the traditional genders have been found tobe stigmatised by society and considered deviant (Epstein 1997). This is particularly difficult for young children who do not fit gendernorms. Little girls who excel at traditionally male activity, such as sport, or who have a boyish appearance are often the targets of slursand bullying; even more often such are directed at effeminate boys oryoung men participating in traditionally feminine pursuits (). Whilst there has been a relaxation of gender absolutes in recent years,children (and adults) still face a strong pressure from society toconform to the community’s ideas of male and female. Society tries to“fix” individuals outside what it considers to be normative behaviour, often with the best intentions, by pressuring those in a minority gender role to conform to stereotypical patterns of behaviour (Epstein1997). Those who remain the male / female binary, refusing to conform,are “either excluded or demonised, and the border between the normaland the perverse is carefully patrolled” (Bem 1995, 331).
People, especially children, are therefore forced to choose onegender role or the other, or be socially outcast. If androgyny exists,the community will typically assign gender to the individual based onappearance (Lucal 1999). “Gender traits are called attributes for areason: People attribute traits to others. No one possesses them.Traits are the process of evaluation” (Weston 1996, 21). Young children often use a variety of external appearance symbols to decide the gender of another, and some believe, for example, that if a boygrows long hair and wears nail polish he will become a girl (). By theprimary years, however, basic gender definition is already substantially established, both as part of the self-concept of the individual child and in the minds of children as a group (Jordan1995). Children are progressing during this period, however, in thedevelopment of their own gender identity, whether or not it fits withprescribed norms. Children during the primary years are alsocontinuing in the negotiation of gender definitions, and aresubsequently open to an expansion of gender beyond the rigid “boys actthis way” and “girls act this way” stereotypes (Jordan 1995). Teacher sat the primary level have the opportunity to expand these ideas ofgender to allow a wider availability of self-expression, or confirmtraditional gender stereotypes, often with profound affect on theirstudents (Jordan 1995).
This development of gender concept has extremely important ramifications both for the child and society. Gender not only determines many of the expectations for males and females, including behaviour, roles, and interests, it in some ways determines relative value (Murphy 2003). Gender roles “prescribe the division of labor and responsibilities between males and females and accord different rightsto them… creating inequality between the sexes in power, autonomy, andwell-being, typically to the disadvantage of females” (Murphy 2003,205). Children are socialized, through home, community and school, into gender-defined attitudes and behaviour (Murphy 2003).
As opposed to its historic one-or-the-other binary of male orfemale, gender has recently been recognised as a learned performance, aset of actions and self-beliefs developed by the individual in the context of his or her own feelings and the roles offered by society (Hawkesworth 1997). This opens the possibility for gender roles beyondthe binary male/female concept. Consequently, whilst sex isbiological, gender must be viewed as derived from cultural experience (Murphy 2003). As a cultural construct, gender involves the incorporation of various symbols, which may support, exaggerate, oreven distort the potential of the individual (Hawkesworth 1997).
Gender is created over time by the repetition of these symbols, withhow the acts are interpreted from society to society allowing for adiversity of norms in gender actions (Butler 1990). For example, for two grown men to hold hands as they walk down the street would beconsidered a homosexual symbol in the UK, but is common practise and holds no such connotation in parts of Africa. Each society has adistinct set of symbols for gender orientation, although there are many commonalities from community to community (Runker and Duggan 1991).Within a given society, boys learn what it is to “act like a man,” and by repeating these actions over time establish their masculinity andthemselves as males. Girls learn to “act like women,” that is, todress and behave in whatever society has defined as a feminine manner.
This leads to a definition of gender as a performance, something eachindividual acts out, rather than a biologically based construct (Butler1990). This view provides a number of gender possibilities outsidethe traditional male/female, and also challenges what is “male” or“female” behaviour. For example, who determined that girls should playwith dolls but not trucks, and boys with trucks but not dolls? Bem(1995) refutes such absolutes, holding that masculine is not the opposite of feminine, but that an individual can be both masculine and feminine at the same time, or even strongly one or the other at different times. “There is a co-dependence between femininities andmasculinities which means that neither can be fully understood inisolation from the other” (Reay 2001, 153-154).
Epstein (1996) describes Kinsey’s research into gender as determininggenders to fall over a continuum rather than in two distinct groups.This continuum spans male, female, homosexual, heterosexual, andeverything in between. Rather than being either “male” or “female,”with distinctly matching interests and sexual desires, an individual is somewhere in this fluid range of gender (Epstein 1996). Each person performs repetitive actions and builds gender-based concepts, whichdetermine his or her place on the continuum of gender identity. This further determines whether he or she “feels” like a man or “feels” likea woman, or perhaps identifies with some other self-produced category(Bem 1995).
Research has indicated that children have a strong desire to mimicor be like those they consider similar to themselves. (Pidgeon, 1994;Thorne, 1993). For example, “Boys create and preserve their masculinity through fear and rejection of whatever might be construedas female” (Jordan 1995, 75). The understanding of themselves asdifferent from girls, the participating in activities that make them“feel” like boys, the avoidance of pursuits or behaviours others might associate with girls, and most importantly copying what they perceiveto be masculine behaviours help boys determine and reinforce their feelings and understanding of being “male” in the traditionalmale/female gender binary.
This is not limited to boys. Most children are highly motivated tolearn and practice whatever actions or concepts they deem necessary toachieve what they personally consider to be gender-appropriatebehaviour. This gender-appropriate behaviour is usually developed athome from a very early age, and reinforced through school and community experiences (Thorne 1993). Unless those in positions of authority or influence specifically address issues such as social justice and genderbias, most children will come to believe that the two distinct genders, male and female, and their associated contemporary gender boundariesare both natural and correct.
The definition of genders within society is often hegemonic. To beable to recognise constricting or reinforcing behaviours within thearea of gender, then, it is important to first examine how the society in question defines masculinity or femininity. There tends to be moreresearch on hegemonic masculinity than femininity, presumably becauseof its impact on world systems of governance, economics, and power (Cohn and Weber 1999). The patriarchal society that still dominatesworld society rests on such masculine definition (Cohn and Enloe2003). Whilst women are increasingly included and allowed positions ofinfluence in such systems, most would concur the systems still operateby and for men, as they were designed. Women who participate must do so within a male construct and paradigm, which is sometimes at odds to their own preferences for dealing with a situation (Cohn and Enloe2003).
Connell (1995) first developed the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ todescribe the definition of masculinity preferred by society. He arguedthat at any particular moment in history, there are number of different masculinities presented in a given society. However, society valuesone or a few masculinities over the others, setting this definition upas the “ideal” to which men (and boys) should aspire. This ideal isconstructed in relation to both these other masculinities and to femininity in the society. Setting up one type of masculinity as idealallows the society to justify the dominance of this gender norm withinit, justifying the domination of men who fit this definition over womenand men outside it (Cohn and Weber 1999). “Hegemonic masculinitypreserves male power through the denigration of women” and men outsideits boundaries (Ashley 2003, 258). “It has led to a narrowing ofcultural opportunities for boys through the perceived need to conformto narrow ‘macho’ stereotypes which requires boys to exclude themselvesfrom any activity popular with girls” (Ashley 2003, 258).
Many writers typify the military as the pinnacle of hegemonicmasculinity, and use it in describing male gender definitions inWestern countries. Cohn and Weber (1999) describe the military aspromising to mould boys into a “real” man, “the hegemonically masculineman, which is, of course, seen as something good” (462). Typicalcharacteristics of the successful soldier include physical andemotional courage, loyalty, ability to endure hardship, fearlessness,compartmentalisation of one’s emotions, and tolerance for andwillingness to take risks. “And male bonding – you can’t be a manuntil you’ve bonded with other men” (Cohn and Weber 1999, 461). Cohnand Weber (1999) argue, however, that instead of “producing all ofthese culturally admired qualities we associate with hegemonicmasculinity,” such gender boundaries, compartmentalisation of emotion,and reduction of anything feminine "creates some of the cripplingqualities of manhood (Cohn and Weber 1999, 463). Men are forced toconform to such limiting boundaries, such as “real men don’t cry,” andare restricted in the socially acceptable means by which they canpractise self-expression. Men are categorised as dominant, aggressiveand warlike, women as passive, compassionate and peaceful, and anythingoutside these definitions is not considered appropriate or positivelyreinforced (Tickner 1999).
This link between reinforcement of masculinity in the military andin the classroom is often played out in power struggles and bullyingwithin a given class, or the school as a whole. “In the early schoolyears most of the boys' co-operative play revolves around suchfantasies, and boys who are not capable of positioning themselveswithin these narratives are excluded from peer play” (Jordan 1995,78). There is further a strong reinforcement of “the 'warrior'discourse, a discourse that… depicts the male as the warrior, theknight errant, the superhero” (Jordan 1995, 78). In this context, themasculinity of the hero or the boy in a position of power is derivedfrom and dependent on the behaviour of others, above whom he positionshimself, thus confirming his male dominance and masculinity (Jordan1995). This is often reinforced by girls, who will ignore their ownwants or needs to make sure dominant boys feel comfortable, and arelikely to simply agree with these boys or avoid them rather thanexplore issues between the two or assert their own rights (Moylan 2003).
Within the primary classroom, much of the power assumption and bullying documented is gender-based, aimed at girls, or more prominently, atboys outside traditional hegemony. Sexualised harassment is common,and clearly linked to the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity(Renold, 2000). Skelton (2001) has concluded from research that “primary school boys engage in the reproduction of hegemonicmasculinity through a discourse of ‘gay’ and ‘girlie’ against peers who do not overtly engage in the hegemonic performance of ‘football, fighting and girlfriends’” (19). However, “given the opportunity, farmore boys than currently do would rebel against hegemonic masculinityand its cultural proscriptions… Many boys are unhappy with the enforceddichotomy between public and private self” (Walker, 2001, 132).
Social class is also a component of what type of man a boy aspiresto be (Ashley 2003). Roughness, for example, is more prized amongstworking-class boys. In a study of a typical British primary class,Reay (2001) notes the class of nearly thirty was primarilyworking-class, with two middle-class boys. Although one of these boyswas not particularly interested in sport or likely to participate infights, he was still considered one of the most popular boys in theclass. Reay hypothesises the class adjusted its definition of therequirements of masculinity due to his social status, as a similarworking-class boy was not afforded such acceptance. She furtherconcludes this variance “suggests that popular discourses may mask theextent to which white, middle-class male advantages in both the sphereof education and beyond continue to be sustained” (Reay 2001, 157).There is an “almost unspoken acceptance of white, middle-classmasculinity as the ideal that all those ‘others ’—girls as well asblack and white working-class boys—are expected to measure themselvesagainst. (Reay 2001, 157).
Overall, it is clear that encouragement and reinforcement of anarrow definition of appropriate masculinity is limiting for many boys,hampering both their growth and development of true self-identity. Ifschools are able to expand the perceptions of acceptable genderbehaviours, these boys will be allowed to express themselves freely andexplore who they are, the same freedom afforded boys who naturally fallwithin the hegemonic stereotype.
Considerably less research has been undertaken on hegemonicfemininity, which should be noted in and of itself. Studies find agreater array of acceptable behaviour for girls, however, althoughbounded strongly by social class. For example, in a study of working-and middle-class primary school students, Reay (2001) found that whilstthere were some shared attributes, the desirable characteristics of onegroup differed significantly from that of the other. Quietness,propriety, and diligence in one’s studies were all found to be valuedcharacteristics for the middle-class girls. In addition, Reay’s studyreaffirmed “findings of feminist research which position ‘being nice’as specific to the formulation of white, middle-class femininity (Reay2001, 159). Working-class girls were more likely to be sexual in theirexpression, or present as tomboys. For the majority of theseworking-class girls, “being a ‘nice girl’ signified an absence of thetoughness and attitude that they were aspiring to” (Reay 2001, 159).
There was a considerable emphasis on appearance, all but the tomboygroup highly valuing feminine clothing and accessories, such as hairornaments or fingernail polish. In another study, girls stressed “thedifficulty and constant negotiation involved in positioning themselvesas fashionable and desiring a fashion that at one moment rendered themattractive and at another labelled them a ‘tart’ in the regulation oftheir bodies and their bodily expression (Renold 2000, 314).Interestingly, it was often other girls applying the pressure for suchtight-rope positioning, further indicating the importance of peerinfluence on gender negotiation, even at a young age (Renold 2000).Girls were critical of their physical appearance, with a very narrowphysical ideal presented to which they wished to conform. “Typicaldaily rituals included checking and regulating arms, legs, hips andthighs, positioning their bodies and others’ as ‘too fat’ or ‘too thin’and advocating the need to diet” (Renold 2000, 310). The tomboy groupwas the only one in either study to construct gender identities throughdifferentiation from both “feminine” girls and boys. This group wasmost likely to pursue alternative dress and fashion. (Renold 2000, 316)
In terms of relationships, girls are encouraged to be helpers of othersand supportive of both the teacher and boys in the class. Girls of allsocial classes are typically expected to be polite, kind, andcompassionate to others in the classroom. Women and girls arehegemonically expected to be collaborative, work together, and devisewin-win alternatives to problem-solving (Rabrenovic and Roskos 2001).Girls failing to perform within such gender determinants of appearanceand action are typically ostracised from social and play activities,and often become the butt of the bullying and teasing, described above,by which other girls and boys position themselves within the group(Runker and Duggan 1991).
Prominent in both hegemonic masculinity and femininity is the emphasison heterosexuality as normative behaviour. This has an extreme effecton gender norming, even amongst pre-sexual children. Although their isa prevalent believe that heterosexual relations somehow symbolise entryinto adolescence, Epstein (1997) and others have documented howsix-year-olds “date” each other, and how even four- and five-year-oldspractise and reinforce heterosexuality in their interactions and play(Epstein, 1997). There is considerable external pressure to conform toheterosexual gender norms for all children. Boys are often tauntedhomophobically if their classroom or playground interactions with otherboys were questionably feminine, or if they themselves “failed or chosenot to access hegemonic masculine discourses and practices” (Renold2000, 322). Girls are reported to “construct their femininity, or whatmight be better described as ‘hyper-femininity’, through a specific,culturally coded somatic ideal, viewing their bodies as only desirablewhen, through the validation of others, they are heterosexualised”(Renold 2000, 311). Boundaries of heteronomativity are fiercelyenforced by peers, and also by authority figures such as parents andteachers (Frank et al 2003).
Renold (2000) and Reay (2001) both indicate a high number ofheterosexual pairings, often refered to as boyfriend and girlfriend bythe children involved, amongst children in the primary years. Theserelationships further solidified the heterosexuality of the childreninvolved, and called into question the gender boundaries of those whodid not participate. For example, Connolly (1998) noted that someprimary-aged boys chose not to engage in heterosexualboyfriend-girlfriend relationships. Some stated they were not ready ortoo young, while others stated a desire to wait until they couldexperience a “real” relationship involving intimate sexual activity.In a similar finding, unless boys such as these “successfully performedas ‘tough-guys’, ‘footballers’ or were ‘sporting competent’, their‘heterosexuality’ would be called into question and they would often be‘homosexualised’ and denigrated as ‘gay’” (Renold 2000, 320). Thisprovided two limited routes through which a boy in the primary yearscould establish his heterosexual hegemonic masculinity, either sport orgirlfriends (Connolly, 1998).
Heterosexual boundaries are therefore shown to further support thedevelopment of hegemonic masculinity and femininity, as the two aretypically developed through rejection of the other. That is, a truemale rejects anything in or around him that is feminine, and separatesfrom such “polluting” attributes. The same is true in reverse,although less dramatically, for females (Cohn and Weber 1999). Thismakes it all the more important that the school environment encourage awide range of gender definitions, allowing students options later forlegitimate self-expression, rather than forced conformity.
“Gender behaviours and differences are learned from birth and have aprofound impact on identity and social roles” (Pidgeon, 1994). Mostchildren learn these gender definitions through interaction with theirfamilies and to a lesser extent their community. Many are alsoinfluenced through previous educational environments such as infantschool. “Children who spend full days in a childcare environment learnmuch about what it means in such a setting to be a boy or a girl.Children also learn gender roles at home and bring rules of gendersocialization into their childcare settings” (Chick, Heilman-Houser andHunter 2002, 153). It is important to note, however, that children’sgender definitions are not fixed in the primary years. Rather genderroles are socially constructed throughout a person’s life in ways bothongoing and active (Thorne, 1993). Another facet of note is thefinding by Pidgeon (1994) that children do not learn what is and is nota gender-appropriate behaviour by imitating the actions of others.While the actions of others and the positive or negative reinforcementthey provide has a profound and fundamental affect on genderdefinition, children also make choices related to gender negotiation,and “demonstrate their own ideas of what it means to be a boy or agirl” (Pidgeon, 1994, 24).
Young children become aware of gender gradually in relation tothemselves, and later in relation to other people. Most have achievedsome type of gender identity by age three (Jacklin and Lacey 1997). Ina hegemonically traditional environment, they come to accept that allpersons will be either male or female, and that gender will generallybe constant by the age of five. Most learn that gender is stable, andremains fixed throughout a person’s life (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).This makes it important to examine the gender constructs children arealready likely to have developed before entry to primary school.Studies have shown that strong hegemonic conceptions of gender arealready dominant in most children’s thinking by this time (Jacklin andLacey 1997).
Infant schools, day-care facilities, and even home environments areoften heavily stereotyped to “male” and “female” conventions. Boys areconventionally dressed in clothes that allow for range of movement andactive play, while girls are often “dressed up” in clothing thatpromotes quiet or less active play (Runker and Duggan 1991).Similarly, boys’ toys are typically bright, primary colours, andinclude things that require larger movement for play, such as cars,trucks, blocks, and balls. Girls’ toys are more likely to be pastel incolour, with pink being the most favoured colour for girls amongst toymanufacturers. Girls’ toys are typically replicants of itemsassociated with the traditional roles of women, such as miniaturekitchens, dishes, and houses. Dolls require smaller, less aggressivemovement in play, with typical doll-based activities including tendingthe doll, such as through dressing or bathing, and role-playing withthe doll, reinforcing relationship priorities amongst girls (Runker andDuggan 1991).
Books were found to strongly favour males, although there is someevidence this pattern is decreasing. Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter(2002) found that “when the caregivers in the young toddler room readto the children, the main characters in the books were usually male”(52). Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993) also came to similar conclusionsin their study on the gender roles typically depicted in children'sliterature. While they found a greater equality in representation ofmale and female characters in recent years, the depictions of genderwere highly conforming to stereotypical gender roles. The vastmajority of books reviewed in the study represented male characters inpositions of leadership, problem-solving, and power. Girls were likelyto be represented as nurturers, helpless, and dependent (Kortenhaus andDemarest 1993). Evans (1998) similarly found that girls who did occupyleading roles in children’s stories typically “still required theassistance of males to solve some type of dilemma” (Evans 1998, 84).Evans cites a number of other studies that concluded “males were moreoften the powerful and active characters. Females, on the other hand,were described or depicted as sweet, weak, frightened, and needy. Theseresearchers argued that children's literature may do a disservice tochildren if it does not accurately represent men and women and thedifferent roles they portray in our Society” (Evans 1998, 84).
Children are also often treated differently according to hegemonicgender expectations. Thorne (1993) found that boys in infant schoolconsistently received more attention than girls, even though thisattention was often associated with inappropriate or disruptivebehaviour. Boys typically exhibit a much higher activity level thangirls, and while a small proportion of this difference is shown to bebiological, most has been documented to be from gender conditioning inthe environment (Thorne 1993; Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).Infant boys received positive reinforcement for assertiveness,rowdiness, and rough play, whilst girls were negatively reinforced forsuch behaviours. Accordingly, girls were positively reinforced forhelpful or caretaking behaviour, passivity, and cooperation in theinfant environment, whilst boys were often asked if something was wrongwhen they displayed such behaviour (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter2002). Boys were expected to be more active and therefore require moreattention, which researchers noted to be provided by caregivers.“Extra attention to boys was evident also in the infant room, wherethey were held and spoken to more frequently” (Chick, Heilman-Houserand Hunter 2002, 150). Infant girls were more likely to occpythemselves quietly and not demand consideration, and accordinglyreceived less attention (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).
It can therefore be concluded that most children enter their primaryyears with a good amount of hegemonic gender reinforcement alreadyunder their belts. “The process of the socialization and formation ofsex roles begins long before school instruction begins: from birth on,parents treat boys and girls differently; they make different demandson them; children are given different toys to play with; they acquiredifferent kinds of experience, and so on” (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77). Bythe time they begin their primary years, boys’ and girls’ behavioursand self-concepts already include a number of gender-basedcharacteristics, from a wide variety of origins (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77).
By the time they enter the primary school years, children usually havebecome aware of culturally accepted gender norms in their society andhave at least partially negotiated their gender self-construct (Jacklinand Lacey 1997). At this point children typically prefer playing withthose of their own gender, reinforcing gender hegemony to which theyhave been previously exposed. This segregation by gender is morelikely in situations where there is little or no interference byadults, indicating it is the children’s preference (Maccoby 1988). Aschildren spend further time within gender-segregated groupings,traditional gender constructs are further reinforced, and the more timea child spends in same-sex contexts, the more likely he or she is toexhibit a strong pattern of gender differentiated behaviour (Maccoby1988).
It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of childrenentering primary classes were reported by teachers to exhibittraditionally gendered behaviours. Those that did not were generallyrejected by teachers in some way, or encouraged to change to a moretraditional gendered behaviour (Reay 2001). For example, girls wereexpected to prefer collaborative work, working for a win-win outcome,and having a quiet, orderly working environment (Burgess 1990; Jackson2002). Teachers also expected girls entering primary school to bebetter adapted to learning activities, to more easily able tounderstand teacher’s directions and explanations, to organise their ownactivity very well, and to have in general a more positive attitudetowards school than boys (Buzhigeeva 2004, 81-82).
Teachers not only expect such behaviours from girls in their classes,but punish girls who do not conform to these expectations. Connolly(1998) reports that girls who behave in an assertive or disruptivemanner are more likely to be viewed negatively than boys exhibiting thesame behaviour. Reay (2001) desribes two such girls who refused totake traditional submissive gender roles in class. They espoused aphilosophy of “giving as good as they got” and “doing it forthemselves,” and were not hesitant to confront challenges by boys, evenphysically. While similar behaviour from boys in the class wasdescribed as “boys being boys,” from these two girls its was viewedinappropriate and actually counterproductive to learning. Reay furtherreports this type of activity, “which ran counter to traditional formsof femininity resulted in them being labelled at various times byteachers in the staffroom as ‘real bitches’, ‘a bad influence’ and‘little cows’” (Reay 2001, 160-161).
Frank et al (2003) found while refusal to participate was generallyaccepted in boys, it was frowned upon in girls and caused them to belabelled as uncooperative. “The implicit acceptance of the position of‘healthy idleness in boys,’ which affirms that no healthy boys everwork at a subject they dislike. ‘Healthy’ boys were and are seen asthose who do not necessarily take up the work of schooling, and,conversely, boys who engage in the process of working hard for goodgrades are by contrast, unhealthy” (Frank et al 2003, 122). Boys weremore likely to be punished or negatively reinforced for traditionallyfemale behaviours by male teachers or principals, or by peers.
In most classroom environments, students were positively reinforcedbased on hegemonic gender norms. Girls were reinforced for theirappearance, such as dress and hairstyle, or for helping or beingcooperative. Boys received more compliments related to their size,intelligence, or physical prowess (Derman-Sparks 1989; Chick,Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002). “When teachers talk with boys aboutappearance, interactions are usually brief and move quickly todiscussion of physical skills or academics” (Chick, Heilman-Houser andHunter 2002, 152). Similarly, teachers are less likely to praise girlsfor academic achievements than neatness. Reay (2001) reports a girlreceiving a perfect mark on an assignment was praised by the teacherfor her handwriting, while a boy receiving a high but less-than-perfectscore was praised for his performance. “This sends a gender specificmessage to young males and females that could contribute to biasedattitudes in children” (Evans 1998, 83). It teaches girls toconcentrate on externals in order to receive praise, and boys toconcentrate on learning and success.
Teachers also structure classroom activity and their own behavioursbased on gender. For one thing, boys often receive more attention inclass. According to the United States’ 1992 American Association ofUniversity Women (AAUW) report, females in primary school “receivedsignificantly less attention from teachers than did males…. Teacherstypically interact more with male students, whether it is to verballyreprimand them, to answer their questions, to elaborate on theircomments, or to help them with schoolwork” (Evans 1998, 83). Frenchand French (1984) and Swann and Graddol (1988) similarly found that notonly did teachers give more attention to boys than to girls, boys as agroup were provided greater access to certain kinds of learningexperiences. This included more open-ended and challenging questionsbeing directed towards boys, greater likelihood of boys to performexperiments or hands-on activities, while girls watched, and power inclassroom discussions and decisions more frequently given to boys bytheir teachers contributed to inequalities. (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).
Boys were typically described by both male and female teachers of bothsexes as “more intelligent, and better able to grasp difficultconcepts, when compared to girls” (Gordon 1998, 55). Girls in the lateprimary years were seen as over-occupied with love affairs and romance,and morally weaker in their behaviours. “Girl pupils are more oftenperceived, by both male and female teachers, as the initiators ofsexual activity with boys and male teachers than as the victims ofsexual harassment and abuse” (Gordon 1998, 55). This is significant asteachers award visibility, to some degree, based on their perceptionsof students. Highly `visible' children, those who achieve high levelsof attention from teachers and visible interaction with peers, are morelikely to be boys; reciprocally, `invisible' children, who receive lessattention and visible interaction with peers, are more likely to begirls. (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).
There is also a tendency to use girls as an instrument of classroomcontrol, regardless of its impact on their learning orself-constructs. The idea that girls enhance boys learning by exertinga “civilising influence” has been present in the educational communityfor decades (Jackson 2002). Parker and Rennie (2002) report severalteachers they surveyed stated they were likely to use girls’ presenceand influence in their classrooms to manage boys’ behaviour, regardlessof the effect of the practise on the girls being so used. Creese et al(2004) similarly noted teachers regularly used girls to straighten upthe classroom, including messes made by boy students, who were notrequired to clean up after themselves. Girls were strongly positionedas helpers by both the teacher and the boys in the class, and werepositively reinforced for participating in this positioning andnegatively reinforced for refusing it. Jackson and Smith (2000)similarly found girls often assume a care-taking role with boys, andare encouraged to do so (Jackson and Smith 2000).
Further, many teachers assigned homework with the understanding thatprimarily the girls would be the students completing it, and often didnot punish boys for not completing this assigned work. Teachers alsoreported they still often designed homework assignments with boys inmind, even if they expected more of the female students to complete thetasks (Parker and Rennie 2002). Within classroom assignments, teachersreport avoiding deficiencies in boys’ written work and poorcommunication skills by allowing the class to rely on the girls’superior abilities in these areas. In general, they are less likely toprovide girls with opportunities to take risks in their work orinteraction, or to address open-ended questions presented to the classapart from the boys’ leadership (Parker and Rennie 2002).
Boys also face censure from teachers when behaving outside traditionalgender constructs. Boys who flaunt the above stereotypes andstudiously apply themselves to their school work are often teased orbullied by their peers, and if they are also effeminate in appearanceor manner were documented to be harassed or put down by teachers,particularly male teachers, as well (Mac an Ghaill, 1994). Similarly,boys who enjoyed helping activities in the primary classroom were oftenridiculed as “sissies” or “pets.” Those boys who did not excel inPhysical Education classes were reported to be derided and slanderedhomophobically by both their peers and their instructors. In short,they were rejected and punished for not “being the right kind of boy”(Frank et al 2003, 122). Interestingly it was the high status boys ina given context, rather than teachers, that typically initiated suchresponse to boys outside traditional hegemonic masculinity. Teacherswere then sometimes likely to participate or reinforce this behaviour(Ashley 2003).
The all-girls school allows for consideration of gender norming in theeducational environment without the “opposite” gender to contrastagainst. Whilst most of the research on gender hegemony involvesmales, advocates for single-sex educational constructs usually do so onbehalf of girls. Warrington and Younger (2001) cite a variety ofresearch, all of which concludes, “single-sex classes give teachers theopportunity to challenge girls’ traditional stereotypes and thegendered perceptions of certain subjects, and enable teachers to buildup girls’ confidence and self-esteem in non-traditional subjects”(341). A wider variety of gender performances were found to betolerated or encouraged in the all-girls environment. For example,Burgess (1990) reports girls’ are more likely to pursue activeleadership roles in same-sex schools, positions traditionally sought byboys. Once the action of leading becomes an accepted part of thesegirls gender identity, they have been found to be more likely tocontinue to pursue leadership opportunities, even if they return to amixed-sex educational setting (Warrington and Younger 2001).
In addition, girls in single-sex schools have been found to be morelikely to study subjects outside traditional “female” boundaries, suchas the hard sciences and mathematics, and are further more likely tosucceed in these subjects (Stables 1990). Girls who participate inall-girls mathematics classes have a greater likelihood of choosing togo on to even more challenging math courses (Parker and Rennie 2002).In a co-educational school offering single-sex courses, girls enrollingin the all-girls GCSE physics class were over three times more likelyto continue with A-level physics than those in the mixed GCSE class(Parker and Rennie 2002). In a same-sex learning environment, girlsare not confronted with tension between succeeding in traditionally“male” subjects and maintaining their femininity. Interestingly thereis not a reciprocal effect on boys in same-sex classes, with ifanything an increased pressure on conformity to hegemonic masculineperformances documented.
Even the decisions for same-sex programmes are heavily influenced bywhat is perceived to be in the best interests of boys. In one recentstudy, over half the LEAs implementing single-sex instruction of somekind did so in response to underachievement by boys, not the needs ofgirls (Warrington and Younger 2003). Another thirty percent of theschools in the same study undertook the system change to address boys’inadequacies in English and modern foreign languages, with less thantwenty percent of schools moving to single-sex instruction to meet theneeds of girls or encourage their academic achievement (Warrington andYounger 2003). Girls and their parents are also often hestitant toadvocated for their educational needs. For example, a number ofschools which initially moved to same-sex instruction to right boys’behavioural problems are planning to return to co-educationalinstruction, even though same-sex instruction has proved to be stronglybeneficial for girls. Girls themselves “are accustomed to their rolesas supporters of the boys, and whilst many girls regard boys asnuisances or pests, many girls do seem concerned that boys should notsuffer as a result of initiatives introduced by the school, even if thegirls feel that they themselves benefit from such initiatives” (Jackson2002, 43-44).
Jackson (2002), reviewing and building on research done by Askew andRoss, found that when girls were not present in the classroomenvironment, “weaker boys ‘take the place’ of girls and provide a‘butt’ for proving masculinity,” suffering at the hands of thepositioning of more hegemonic males (44). Notably, this is a reasonprovided by many to avoid single-sex educational systems such as theall-girls school. School administrators are reported in a number ofLEAs to be considering returning girls to mixed-sex classes to protectsuch non-hegemonically masculine boys from harm (Jackson 2002).Presumably, the girls will protect such boys by reclaiming their placeas the ‘butts’ against which masculine positioning and bullying arelevelled. “One school, which had introduced single-sex classes mainlybecause of behavioural problems among boys, was contemplatingabandoning it precisely for the same reason: a survey amongst staff inthis school found that an overwhelming eighty-six percent of staff feltboys’ behaviour to be a problem in single-sex groups” (Warrington andYounger 2003, 347).
It is not surprising that hegemonic gender roles encouraged andreinforced in the classroom are then practised by children during playactivities. They have probably been playing within the confines oftraditional gender norms for most of their lives. Thorne (1993)contends play has a major role in how young children construct gender;Pidgeon (1994) agrees, holding that as children develop their genderidentities, they naturally begin to select gender-typed toys andactivities. “It is through imaginative play that children begin toexplore and understand gender roles” long before their schooling begins(Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 149). Parents interactionswith female children tend to be more protective than with malechildren, hindering female children’s ability to engage in independentproblem-solving and their willingness to take risks. “Boys remain moredistant from their parents; they have to deal with a broader range ofphenomena in life, which stimulates them to greater cognitive activity”(Buzhigeeva 2004, 77). In addition, children are more likely to bepraised by parents or other authority figures for stereotypicallygendered play, such as girls with dolls and boys with trucks.
As discussed above, many children also have experience highlystereotyped play environments at home, in their communities, and inprevious educational situations even before they arrive at primaryschool (Runker and Duggan 1991). Selection of toys and playactivities, for example, which is initially done by parents or otherauthority figures, influences gender development. From an early age,different types of toys are routinely provided to girls and boys forplay, and over time they respond to these toy selections by choosinggender-based toys and play activities (Pidgeon, 1994). At the primarylevel, “toys and games for boys are more oriented to encouraging thedevelopment of independence, an exploratory approach to theaccomplishment of tasks, and a better understanding of spatialrelations” whilst girls toys and games encourage discipline andfollowing rules, a submissive approach to tasks, and an emphasis onrelationship skills (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77).
Children are further aware which types of toys are intended for them,and most comply with such leading during play times (Runker and Duggan1991). Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter (2002) observed that childrenduring play periods at school “consistently exhibited gender separationin their choice of toys, activities and playmates” (152). Girlspreferred dolls, play telephones, purses, shopping carts, and colouringpages, whilst boys were attracted to trucks, blocks, squirt buts, andpuzzles. In one all-girls class, toys included “rocking chairs, washerand dryer sets, kitchen sets, dress-up clothes, a shopping cart, babydolls, and a twirl around play set. There were no blocks, buildingsets, tool sets, trucks, or cars” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter2002, 152). Girls played more often with each other and in role-playscenarios, such as “playing house.” Boys were more apt to choosephysical activities such as bowling (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter2002, 152).
As boys are encouraged to be assertive and outgoing in the classroom,such behaviours are also highly prized by peers in play. This isencouraged in many play areas by providing boys more active playequipment and a greater proportion of play space (Thorne 1993). This,coupled with gender reinforcement in the classroom and at home,encourages boys to engage in active, aggressive play, and marginalisesany boys who resist such play or choose other play activities. Sport,particularly very physical sport, is a strongly desirable activity forestablishing hegemonic masculinity amongst young boys. “Participationin sports is considered essential for males, with rugby beingconsidered the most `masculine’ and `virile’ of all the sports” (Gordon1998, 54). Close male friendships, and important part of boys gendernegotiations, are often forged through sport activities such asfootball. These activities “allow aspects of male bonding that mightbe disrupted by a feminine influence” causing the “no girls allowed”clause so typical of young boys’ play (Ashley 2003, 266). When boyschoose to play quietly outdoors, researchers found the boys were oftenasked by teachers why they were doing so, with questions such as “areyou feeling all right?” and “Don’t you want to play with the others?”being common (Evans 1998).
Boys also use play and prowess at play activities in negotiation ofsocial dominance. Those who are able to organise or lead their team,typically the most popularly positioned boys, and those who exhibitparticular athletic skill are promoted within the group (Runker andDuggan 1991). This reinforces both male bonding (being part of theteam) and male-specific activities as part of the boys’ genderdefinitions. When playing with girls, boys similarly use power andcontrol strategies that support both their dominance as males and aseparation of genders. This often causes girls to withdraw from playactivities, leaving the boys in their gender reinforcing, all-malegroup (Walkerdine, 1998). Ashley (2003) has also “clearlydemonstrated boys’ preference for the mesomorphic (athletic) physiqueamongst their peers” when awarding social position or friendship(Ashley 2003, 266).
Girls, responding to reinforcement of the traditional gender emphasison relationships, tend to favour relation-based play. “Girls were morefrequently observed to experiment with adult roles, many of which weregender typed, such as playing house, talking on the phone, andshopping” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 152). Whenrelationships are uncomfortable, such as when boys are involved and tryto dominate play or when two members of the play group areuncreconcilable, many girls will simply avoid play, and are oftencommended for doing so (Walkerdine, 1998). Just as girls are moretypically inactive participants in all aspects of school life, so theyare often passive in play activities (Thorne 1993). Evans (1998)contends that the repeated gender messages sent to girls through theirenvironment effectively silences them both in an out of the classroom.
Girls’ play is predominantly domestic, through which they focus on thedevelopment and maintenance of a few close relationships with othergirls. The best friend and small group of close, intimate peers ishighly important to both girls’ play and gender negotiations (Runkerand Duggan 1991). Girls typically participate with this group inrole-play and other play activities modelled on real life. Throughthis play they reinforce both their current roles as girls andanticipated future roles as women, practising also skills in buildingand maintaining support networks (Runker and Duggan 1991). When girlschoose active, rowdy play activities, they often receive negativefeedback from teachers. For example, one girl was asked if she hadbeen drinking coffee by a classroom instructor because she was behavingactively, although boys exhibiting similar behaviour received no suchcomments. When a group of boys and girls was later playing on thesliding board and crawling over its sides, “the girls were cautioned tostop crawling or they would ‘hurt their bellies,’ although no commentswere made to the boys” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 151).
Both male and female children are typically exposed to and heavilyreinforced in hegemonic gender roles from a very early age. Whilstthis can help them in making gender distinctions, it also limits themto two gender possibilities within the traditional male / femalebinary. This prevents many children from both gender performances andexploring activities of preference to them. Many researchers havedocumented that whilst the education system is more attentive to boyswants and needs, it also more strongly encourages conformity of boys toa hegemonic masculine stereotype, and marginalises boys who do not fitthis narrow definition of maleness (Jordan 1995). Girls have a widerrange of options in gender negotiation, with sampling traditionallymale activities from a “tomboy” gender definition being somewhatsocially acceptable in many situations. The pressure to conform tohegemonic heterosexual femininity, however, increases strongly as girlsnear the end of the primary school period (Reay 2001).
As it is unlikely to happen in the home ore community, it is importantfor the healthy development of all children that the educationalenvironment provide a safe place for gender exploration andnegotiation, allowing the individual child the freedom toself-determine his or her gender identity. This will only beaccomplished through deliberate increased awareness of teachers toencourage and reinforce a gender continuum, both in the classroom andin play activities. As children both learn from play and play what they learn, emphasis on a variety of gender definitions in play empowers both our children and society to develop to their full potential.