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Q&A with Susie Heywood: Tackling gender stereotypes

Posted 28 June, 2022 by Jennifer Drummond

Ahead of her webinar in July, Susie reflects on how gender and public health issues are intrinsically linked and the importance of counter-balancing harmful societal stereotypes

For the past four years Susie Heywood has committed to developing an approach to tackle gender inequality across Scotland. Along with Barbara Adzajlic, she created and delivered the acclaimed Gender Friendly Nursery programme for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, designed to improve gender equality and raise awareness of the harmful impacts of gender stereotypes from a public health perspective.

To build on its success, she launched the new Gender Friendly Scotland website and will shortly be publishing a book on the topic of gender stereotypes in the early years.

Here, she shares the importance of recognising the long-term, harmful impact of gender stereotyping on physical, emotional and mental wellbeing and why it’s so crucial for early years professionals to help change the narrative.

You are a firm believer that many of the public health issues we face are rooted in gender inequality and that challenging the narrative will help progress change. Can you tell me more? 

Both Barbara and I have a professional background in public health which is why we make these links. We know that gender inequality is a root cause of violence against women and girls and that the stereotype of the strong, tough, self-sufficient man, which starts early with messages like “boys don’t cry” plays a role in the elevated rates of suicide that we see amongst men compared with women.

We know that the drip feed of messages to girls around the importance of their appearance leads to issues around self-esteem, participation in sports, body image and disordered eating.

Other areas like poverty, educational attainment, career destinations, mental health and others are all relevant to these gendered ideas and pressures too.

It can be argued there has been a significant shift in understanding over the last decade and more willingness to challenge standing stereotypes and change the narrative, evidenced in the work you do and through national movements and campaigns such as Let Toys be Toys and Let Clothes by Clothes.  Is this your experience? Are we making progress?

I think we are making progress. The number of people who seem to be catching on to this agenda has certainly increased, and we have seen many early years settings really embrace the learning we have shared, so that’s really encouraging.

However,  these gendered attitudes and ideas are so ingrained that it’s going to take a while to really reach the cultural change that needs to happen – but I think we are seeing signs that we are on the right track.

It is of course important to remember that gender stereotypes are only one of many ways that children can be limited and put into boxes – as a society we still have a long way to go when it comes to things like racism, disability and neurodiversity for example.

The event you are running with us is entitled Challenging Gender Stereotypes: How to change the narrative. What are you hoping those in attendance will take away from the session?

I hope they leave with an understanding of why it’s important that we challenge gender stereotypes, particularly with young children, as well as a sense of why doing this benefits everyone. This is not a siloed issue. Gender stereotypes don’t just impact one particular group in society, though they do affect us all in different ways.

Secondly, I hope that they feel equipped with ideas of how they can make a difference for children – by both reducing their exposure to gender stereotypes and by providing a counter-balance to the messages that society hammers home to us from birth about what it means to be a boy or a girl. At the end of the day this is all about ensuring that children aren’t limited by these messages – that they can dream big and free.

Susie will be leading the event Challenging gender stereotypes: how to change the narrative, held online on Tuesday 26 July.
Click here to find out more and book

Challenging Gender Stereotypes in the Early Years: Changing the Narrative by Susie Heywood and Barbara Adzajlic will be published in September 2022 by Routledge Education.

Let's challenge the gender stereotypes that are constraining children

5 December 2018

Nikki Chung, Project Support Intern at Zero Tolerance, responds to Call 13 of our 25 Calls campaign, which focuses on tackling gender stereotypes in the context of supporting children to be human rights defenders. 

Call 13: Support children to become human rights defenders

Zero Tolerance is super-inspired by Ruby’s dedication in her ‘Let’s Adventure’ campaign.

We could not agree more with Ruby when she says that we should be working harder to challenge gender stereotyping. Ruby’s upbeat approach to this issue is infectious. It energises us to continue challenging the ways in which children are limited and constrained by tired stereotypes.

We believe that it is never too early or late to challenge gender stereotyping, whether it be in schools or in a working environment.

But it is helpful to define what gender stereotyping is so we can fully understand the concept. Gender stereotyping perpetuates inequality and reinforces preconceptions about what an individual will like or how they will behave, simply because they belong to a particular group.

Ruby on stage
Ruby speaking at the 25 Calls launch.

Ruby summarises this beautifully when she describes the clothing catalogue that only depicted girls in pink dresses, and boys in clothes fit for adventuring in.

This kind of stereotyping assumes that all boys will be the same and like the same things, and that all girls will be the same and like the same things. But what about wee girls, like Ruby, who want to climb trees, get muddy and be leaders?

What about wee boys who want to dance, wear sparkles and talk about feelings? These stereotypes directly influence the activities children participate in, and shape their interests, skills, and what roles they take in society as adults.

Children learn from a very young age that their behaviour, likes, dislikes and expectations should follow ‘rules’ about ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ roles. Treating young boys and girls differently sets up a pattern for life, based on difference.

Although there is nothing wrong with difference, when it leads to limitations and discrimination it can affect long-term confidence, opportunity, achievement, health, relationships, safety and more.

For example, action, construction and technology toys are mainly marketed at boys; social role play and arts and crafts toys are mainly marketed at girls. Marketing toys in this way limits play, which is crucial to how children develop and learn about the world. Boys should have the chance to practice social skills; and girls need to be active and learn spatial and problem-solving skills.

Themes of glamour and beauty in toys and attitudes directed at even the youngest girls tips over into a worrying emphasis on outward appearance and the devaluation of girls’ intellect and opinions. Fifty five per cent of girls aged 7–21 say gender stereotypes affect their ability to say what they think [1].

Stereotyped attitudes about boys are also harmful. The constant assumption reinforced in toy advertising and packaging that boys are interested only in action and violence tells calmer, sensitive or more creative boys that they don’t fit in and contributes to lower expectations for boys that undermine their performance at school.

Worryingly, the damaging effects of these early gender stereotypes are experienced by all children from a young age. This includes young girls experiencing eating disorders; bullying of children who do not meet stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl; and children who do not conform to gender stereotypes experiencing negative feelings about themselves.

These stereotypes of hard emotionless men and women being less important also contribute to the normalisation and perpetuation of violence against girls. One study found that girls as young as 12 had experienced pressure from their peers to send topless pictures of themselves by text and instant messaging services [2]. Gender-based violence also begins at a much earlier age than once assumed.

According to a study by the NSPCC a quarter of teenage girls have experienced physical violence in their intimate relationships [3].

Its not all bad though. Through the 25 Calls campaign, Ruby and Children in Scotland remind us of this. Its children and young people themselves who are most tired of these stereotypes, who want to play and learn without the restrictions these stereotypes place on them.

Young rights defenders like Ruby are leading the discussion about how we challenge and end these stereotypes. It's up to the rest of us to support and bolster the young people’s work, something we commend Children in Scotland for doing so well.

We will be launching our new resource with the Care Inspectorate, ‘Gender Equal Play in Early Learning and Childcare on 11 December, and launching our campaign on challenging gender stereotyping of young children in early 2019.

In the mean time please click here to check out our existing work on this issue.

Nikki Chung is Project Support Intern at Zero Tolerance.

She was responding to Call 13 of our 25 Calls, "Support children to become human rights defenders. Click here to read the call in full.





About the author

Nikki Chung works at Zero Tolerance, a charity challenging normalisation of violence against women

Click to find out more

Call 13

Inspired by Ruby, Bruce Adamson called for children to be supported to be human rights defenders

Click to read the call in full

Protecting and promoting child rights

The Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland works to protect young people's rights

Click to visit the website

Transforming society for every childhood

NSPCC stand up for children and demand that laws change to better protect them

Click to find out more

25 Calls

Our major anniversary campaign proposes ways that children can better enjoy their rights and experience equality

Click to read more

Adventure, events and inspiration

Girlguiding UK empowers girls and young women to do amazing things

Click to find out more