“Very few schools consider themselves to be promoting gender norms or particular ideas about sexuality, but they do promote lessons about boys and girls and heterosexuality all the time,” says Vanita Sundaram, professor in the department of education at the University of York.
Speaking to the Tes Podagogy podcast, Sundaram explains that this begins at the earliest ages of schooling.
“We know from a very young age that gendered norms are learned and enacted in primary schools,” she says. “Boys are using objectifying language about girls to evaluate their appearance, girls are using that same language to evaluate themselves. Teachers use gendered language all the time in schools, too. That arbitrary division of classroom spaces, school spaces, into binary categories of boys and girls. Those kind of things absolutely re-enforce the notion that there are two genders and each behaves in a particular way.”
Sundaram has researched what this leads to in the teenage years. Her research has focussed on violence and "lad culture" and how gender stereotypes and identities can mean young people excuse or justify violent acts against women.
“Students will start off by saying violence is not acceptable,” she says. “But as you begin to talk about different scenarios, in which coercive control, pressure or abuse might happen, they begin to justify why violence might take place and they do that with reference to gender expectations and scenarios.
“So for example, if we gave a scenario of a young man putting sexual pressure on his girlfriend at a party and she says no, but he continues to pressure her and calls her a gendered insult like ‘slut’, we find that when interpreting that, young people rely on stereotypes of how they think boys or girls should behave or what girls should put up with. They do this to justify, explain or sometimes even excuse violence. They will say things like ‘It is understandable because she rejected him sexually and boys don’t like that kind of thing’ or there is an expectation that girls will be sexually acquiescent so the violence would have been deserved.”
Promoted gender roles
In the podcast, Sundaram discusses how schools can begin to dismantle these gender stereotypes and talks at length around a number of issues around gender, including the negative impact gender stereotypes have on boys and the calls for “more men” to be employed in primary schools.
“A lot of the debates around why we need more male teachers have drawn on very essentialist notions of gender,” she explains. “So men can promote particular types of masculinity in boys, or teach in a way that appeals more to boys, I think those ideas of gender are really unhelpful. There is research in which male teachers talk about schools being very feminine spaces, but pinpointing exactly what that is and why it is exclusionary to men is not so easy to establish.
“Men also lose in the game of gender stereotyping – the pressure to perform masculinity in certain ways is very limiting.”
You can listen for free by downloading the podcast from iTunes or listening below.