A guide for teachers on how young people understand gender stereotypes, their impacts and ways to challenge and discuss these with 9-11 year olds.

Gender roles and impacts
Gender stereotypes are culturally-ingrained ideas about appropriate behaviours for males and females. Common narrow gender stereotypes can include: that it is not ok for men to cry; that men are naturally aggressive; that females should be submissive and ‘pick up the pieces’. Young people are largely aware of gender stereotypes by this age and will have begun to accept some of these as universal truths. Rigid gender stereotyping promotes inequity between the sexes and can set young people up to expect and accept power imbalances within relationships later in life.

This is an opportune time, before adolescence, to talk about the impact of gendered expectations on choices, existing friendships and future relationships. Accepting gender stereotypes and roles can have longer-term negative influences on children’s beliefs attitudes and future behaviours. For example, surveys with 12-18 year olds have found that:

  • One in three think that exerting control over someone is not a form of violence.
  • One in four don’t think that it is serious, if a man who is normally gentle with his partner, slapped her when drunk.
  • One in four think that street harassment is not serious.
  • One in six think that women should know their place.
  • One in six think that it is ok for a guy to pressure a girl into sex if they are both drunk.1

The benefits of tackling gender stereotypes with this age group include supporting young people to:

  • Become aware of the messages that promote gender double standards and inequality in the media, online and within the broader community.
  • Know fact from fiction about sexuality.
  • Understand the effect gender stereotypes can have on their options and roles in sport, at school and within their families.
  • Develop realistic expectations about future relationships based on mutual respect and equity.

Where do young people learn about gender?
Young people may learn about acceptable gender roles and stereotypes from television, the internet or other media. For example:

  • Print media (magazines such as Dolly, Girlfriend or K-Zone), from books or magazines that their parents read2 (e.g. Australian Women’s Weekly).
  • Visual media (the Internet, including social media such as, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and video games, television and music videos).
  • Audio media (song lyrics that include narrow representations of men and women or language that is derogatory towards women).

Young people also learn about gender roles from the adults they respect, including their teachers. Students can learn about gender stereotypes at school by:

  • How teachers treat each other on a day-to-day basis.
  • The prizes they are awarded at school. For example, boys receive prizes for being sporty and girls receive prizes for being ‘good and quiet’. Or the stickers they receive for a job well done, that is, girls receive pink stickers and boys receive more subdued stickers.
  • How teachers reward or discipline behaviour that adheres to accepted notions of gender. For example, using statements such as ‘man up’ or excusing inappropriate behaviour through comments such as ‘boys will be boys’.

What do young people think about gender stereotypes and roles?
Research conducted around Australia with young people aged between 9 and 11 years, indicates that they have an understanding of culturally accepted gender roles and the power dynamics associated with these. However, it is evident that young people also buy into these stereotypes and are often not aware of when and how stereotypes are impacting on their behaviours and choices. Therefore, conversations around identifying gender stereotypes can work best when supported by an adult such as a teacher who can assist young people to understand influences on identity, relationships and decision-making.

Below are comments from Australian young people (9-11 years) illustrating their existing understanding of gender stereotypes.

Some young people can see how early gender stereotyping begins:
“It’s like when we go to buy something for a baby and everything for girls is pink and everything for boys is blue and there’s no other colours” (11 year old girl).

That stereotypes can change over time:
“Pink used to be a boy’s colour but it’s now a girl’s colour” (11 year old girl).
“This year my favourite colour is orange but last year it was blue” (11 year old boy).

Young people are aware of power dynamics:
“Men are known to go out and get a job and get money while women have to stay at home and cook and clean” (11 year old girl).
“Men are paid more than women and more of them are CEOs and have the money” (11 year old girl).

Schools making a difference
Schools and teachers can support young people to challenge gender stereotypes and reach their full potential based on ability as opposed to gendered expectations. It isn’t just about what is done in the classroom but throughout the whole school, including school leadership, administration, on the sporting field, and in the playground.

For example, in the classroom, teachers can look at how they praise students: do male and female students receive equal praise for the same behaviour? Are both males and females praised for being neat, speaking up in class, or being active in physical activities? Encouraging young people to be friends across genders can also be beneficial to their socialisation.

Having policies that promote both gender equity and acceptance of diversity that apply across the whole school to students, teachers and parents, supports a safe and equitable environment where young people are exposed to positive messaging and role models.

Discussing gender with ‘tweens’
Many pre-teens are ready to actively engage in discussions about respectful relationships, gender roles and stereotypes. This is a key time prior to puberty, high school and before many young people start experiencing romantic relationships, as well as an age where gender stereotypes are becoming more cemented and begin to impact on future decisions such as subject and extra-curricular choices.

On top of this, existing curriculum often re-enforces gendered stereotypes, for example through characters in books or examples used in maths and science texts. Using class time to examine power dynamics and stereotyped representations within the curriculum can be beneficial to the development of young people’s skills to critique negative messaging within learning materials and the media.

Age appropriate discussions about gendered expectations can include:

  • Jobs and roles for women and men both inside and outside the home and how stereotypes can limit these options.
  • Cultural expectations about feminine or masculine activities, fashion and behaviour (e.g. who can have long hair? Who can wear trousers? Who has body hair?).
  • How gendered expectations have changed over-time (i.e. their generation compared with their parents and grand-parents).
  • Exploring young people’s current judgements on gender and how this impacts on their expectations of themselves and treatment of others.

It can also be an ideal time to begin discussing power imbalances in relationships (friendships as well as romantic relationships). For example, the expectations that are often placed on young people in terms of how they interact with the opposite sex, such as asking girls to ‘keep the peace’ and allowing boys to tease girls ‘because they like them.’

Tackling sexist language within the classroom and playground is also a way in which gender stereotypes can be called out. For example, challenging phrases such as “you kick like a girl” and questioning young people on what is really meant by this and how these statements could impact, hurt and limit potential. Bringing attention to female athletes, like the Australian soccer squad the Matildas, who have been more successful on the world stage than their male counterparts, could be a useful example to rethink how students view gender and the capabilities of their peers.

These minor changes can support an awareness of rigid gender stereotypes among young people and assist them to create respectful relationships and identities that challenge negative stereotyping.

Talking gender stereotypes with young people- a resource for teachers

Download the 'Talking gender stereotypes' resource here
This is a resource package to assist teachers to talk to children between 9-11 years of age about gender stereotypes and how they can both impact and limit choices and interactions with others. This resource will aid teachers to assist children to understand:

  • What gender stereotypes are.
  • Where we learn about stereotypes.
  • The impacts of stereotypes on our identities and relationships.
  • The importance of challenging stereotypes.

The content of this resource is based on findings from a number of participatory workshops undertaken with 9-11 year olds to understand in their own words how gender stereotypes impact and influence their relationships, identities and future expectations.

Below are some videos for adults to think about how gender roles affect children.

Are There Girls Toys and Boys Toys?
What messages do toys labelled “girls” toys vs “boys” toys send to children and what effect can it have on their career choices down the track? And what can adults do?

Male Gender Stereotypes
Children discuss what it means to “be a man” in the media and what boys do that are contrary to what media and society tells them about “being a man”.

How Disney Stereotypes Hurt Men
A look at how Disney stereotypes men and the effect this has on children’s understanding of masculinity.

Childhood Gender Roles in Adulthood 

A humorous look at how limiting and tiring it would be for both women and men to live with childhood gender roles in adulthood.

One Teacher Helps Kids Beat Gender Stereotyping
A short piece that explains how one teacher is helping children who do not identify with traditional gender stereotypes.

Catching on Early
An evidence-based resource founded on the latest research into sexuality education and child sexual development. It has been developed for use in Victorian schools but the activities that are included in the resource can be used and adapted for classrooms around Australia.

Partners in Prevention
A variety of activities from Partners in Prevention that can be used by teachers to incorporate into their classes about respectful relationships. The site contains links to other resources and activities teachers can use with children from all age groups.

Sexuality Education Matters
A guide intended for pre-service teachers to prepare them for teaching and discussing sexuality matters with their students and implementing whole of school strategies. It contains the research background to each unit as well as activities for pre-service teachers to practice becoming comfortable with thinking about and discussing gender.

Body Image
How children feel about their bodies has an effect on their self-esteem and interactions with children across all genders. This resource from the Western Australia Department of Health offers some information for teachers about how to educate children about what they see in the media and how that can affect them.

Kids helpline
A helpline and resource for young people between 5 and 15 years of age, including telephone and online counselling and support services.

1. The Line campaign summary of research findings (download the Word doc).

2. Renold, E. (2005). Girls, Boys and Junior Sexualities: Exploring children’s gender and sexual relations in the primary school. Abingdon: Routledge.