Shifting the tide: Should schools go gender-neutral?
Are schools' reliance on gender norms hurting students? Source: Shutterstock

Is our dependence on gender norms, which shapes just about every aspect of our lives from birth – such as the clothes (and colour) we wear and what’s considered acceptable behaviour for girls and boys – doing more harm than good?

There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the topic of gender-neutral, and schools have not escaped the debate. Last year, CNN reported that schools in Sweden are already making efforts to do away with gender norms. 

For instance, they note that two preschools in the country “go to great lengths to de-emphasise gender”, with teachers being careful not to discourage or assign activities that pigeonhole them into a specific gender mould. 

“The school has removed the terms ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ completely. Instead they make a deliberate effort to call each child by their first name or the gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’,” said CNN.

In the UK, Lanesend Primary School conducted an experiment in which students spent a term going gender-neutral, whereby “all differences in the way the sexes are treated removed”, said The Telegraph in 2017.

Classroom walls had signs reading “girls are strong” and “boys are sensitive” while “books featuring passive princesses and aggressive superheroes are disposed of”, said the report.

“Children, it seems, are becoming increasingly preoccupied with gender, with a marked rise in the number saying they identify as being either of the opposite sex, or of no sex at all. Figures published by the NHS in May this year showed that more than double the number of girls compared to boys seek to use its gender identity development service, with 1,400 ‘assigned at birth’ females seeking treatment, compared with 616 males in the past year,” it said.

At the start of the experiment, psychometric tests show that the boys were less able to express their emotions but more confident in their abilities, while the girls have lower self-esteem and a lesser ability to process numbers and shapes. 

“All but one girl believe boys are ‘better’ than them and their self-perception is largely limited to their appearance. One pupil, Kara, says ‘girls are better at being pretty’ while another, Tiffany, declares ‘men are better at being in charge.’ The boys are similarly old-fashioned: little Louis says ‘girls look after the child and boys do lots of cool stuff,’ while Bradley declares ‘men are more successful because they could have harder jobs.’”

The results surprised teachers, as the school were already making efforts to improve the school’s equality with talks on inspirational women and mixed sports teams. 

The examples above suggest that schools may be doing students a disservice by perpetuating stereotypes and encouraging (or discouraging) them from doing certain things to fit their gender label (e.g. toys like blocks are for male students, categorising books as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’, etc.). 

This is echoed by the Global Early Adolescent Study which notes “rigid gender expectations that limit the futures of many of the world’s young people”.  

Ultimately, gender stereotypes can shape students’ beliefs about their abilities, career choices, and the like, changing the trajectory of their future, and at times, keeping them boxed in when they should be free to explore their talents and interests.    

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