Learning a thing or tutu

A girl of about 5 approached me in the local playground with knitted brow. "Why is that little boy wearing a skirt?" she said, pointing accusingly at my three-year-old son who was running around in a purple tutu.

My mother-in-law also expressed concern about the tutu. "I just want him to enjoy being a boy," she said.

About the same time as I was defending my son's right to wear whatever he wanted, my secondary school class and I watched the film Billy Elliot. Fortunately, my students were more open to discussing the limitations of gender stereotypes than mothers-in-law and small girls.

"It's just like here, Miss," one girl commented. Well, apart from the sunshine and booming mining industry inland, she had a point: similarly to Billy's fictional town in County Durham, there are some fixed ideas about what members of each sex should get up to in Australia. You only have to look at the manual industrial services course at our school with its 100 per cent, blue-overall-wearing male enrolment and our business course where two willowy boys sit amid a sea of touch-typing girls.

In recent years gender differences have been embraced once more by the media, parents and educators alike. These distinctions fit in with our established ideas about everything from toilet training and reading habits to mathematical ability and parallel parking.

After I had my own children, every parenting book I picked up seemed to have a title like "What to Expect from Boys" or "How to Raise Happy Girls". When I was pregnant, people expressed surprise that we weren't finding out the baby's sex. "How can you prepare properly?" I was asked. Even from the womb, it appears, we are setting our children up for clearly defined gender roles. And how far are these expectations being carried into schools?

Deep down I had felt awkward about my little boy going out in a skirt, so how guilty was I of letting stereotyping slip into my classroom? I worried that I was living up to the warnings about how teachers can subconsciously reinforce gender norms that appeared in TES a few weeks ago ("Playing to type", Feature, 28 March). I decided to give myself a good shakedown and see what stereotypes fell out.

Just the other day I had asked for some "strong boys" to help me move furniture and the winners of my recent writing competition had all been girls. I was pretty sure I had punished a loud, non-compliant boy and let a smiling, subversive girl get away with it. As feminism enters its fourth wave, I must be careful not to get swept up on a tide of parochialism.

My younger self swore that no daughter of mine would ever wear those silly tutus, so opposed was I to the "princess" ideals I believed they represented. I never considered that I might have to deal with my son wearing one. Now that research suggests gender differences are not inherent but the result of a far more complex cultural legacy, what better time for teachers and parents to reflect on how we handle stereotypes? Besides, my son looks rather fetching in pink.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia

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