Gendered Language in Schools

We were delighted to run a workshop for primary school teachers at the Gender Action launch event last month, addressing gendered language in schools, why it matters and strategies for dealing with it.  We chose to address language as language runs through the heart of children’s learning about the world and – intended or otherwise – conveys profound and lasting messages to children about how they should look and behave, what they should aspire to, what and who they should play with. 

Children are surrounded by gender stereotyping from birth, in every aspect of their lives: from how they are praised (girls as ‘pretty’ or boys as ‘big and strong’), the slogans on their clothes (pink ‘too pretty to do math’ or blue ‘here comes trouble’ t-shirts) to the toys marketed to them (with girls frequently in the domestic realm and boys active and adventurous).  The ubiquity of these stereotypical influences means that, unless challenged, children grow up thinking this is ‘just the way the world is’.  Children – and adults – carry the effects of this stereotyping with them into the school environment. This is why it is important to address gendered language in schools as part of a wider whole school approach to challenging gender stereotyping, so that children gain the tools and confidence to challenge stereotypical messages for themselves, wherever they may encounter them.

The ‘soundtrack’ of sexist or gendered language which children hear around them in (and outside) school reinforces stereotypical messages. This includes language that has a bias towards or against a particular sex or gender. It is not always intended to be hurtful but can still have a negative impact on all genders because of the bias or inequality it promotes.  This might be language which is outright sexist such as ‘man up’ or telling a child (boy or girl) that they run, cry or throw ‘like a girl’ but often it is more subtle – and sometimes even well-intentioned such as complimenting girls on their appearance or emphasising ‘putting a brave face on it’ for boys – yet can be just as damaging in the context of a drip-drip effect of gendered messaging.

Amongst children, language which demarcates certain play, activities, behaviours or roles in life as being ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ remains common – such as ‘this is a boys’/girls’ game’, ‘girls can’t play football’ or ‘…you can’t be a (fireman/nurse) because you’re a (girl/boy).  From adults, children hear mixed messages – adults tell them expressly that they can do anything in life, yet that message is regularly undermined through language which reinforces norms of behaviour, characteristics or roles (such as ‘tomboy’, ‘I need two strong boys to help move these tables’, ‘don’t you look pretty today’, ‘lady doctor’, ‘ask mummy to…’).  That this is usually done inadvertently makes its effects no less powerful.

One particular expression which trips easily off the tongue is ‘boys will be boys’.  This might be spoken – something you hear in the staffroom – or it might be an unspoken opinion, informing expectations of ‘boys’ as a group.  We all know what is meant by this expression – it is used to excuse, justify or anticipate rough or disruptive behaviour from boys.  It’s never used when a boy has been helpful or kind.  Its effects are harmful and unfair, suggesting that boys can’t help bad behaviour, suppressing the individuality of the many boys who are not behaving in this way and anticipating that ‘girls’ (again, as a group) will be better behaved.  This is an expression which reinforces gendered norms and expectations and chimes with what year 6 pupils (girls and boys) have told us – that they feel staff are expecting boys to misbehave and punish them more harshly than girls and often as a group for the behaviour of a few.  If boys know what behaviour is expected of them ‘as boys’, could there be a self-fulfilling element to this expression?

So does hearing a bit of gendered language in school really matter and do staff have a responsibility to address it?  Yes, because if we let gendered language lie we approve or endorse its message – what is left unchallenged becomes for children just the way the world is.  By challenging gendered language you start to develop children’s ability to challenge it for themselves – a win-win situation.  Yet data from surveys undertaken by staff in our pilot schools shows that staff don’t always have the confidence to identify and address sexist language.  Around a third of staff lacked confidence in identifying language which might be sexist.  When it came to addressing sexist language, around a third lacked confidence in addressing it with pupils and over half with colleagues.  Supporting staff in gaining this confidence is part of what we offer schools. 

Challenging gendered language as part of a whole school approach is crucial work for any school wishing to challenge gender stereotyping and promote gender equality – and to support children in resisting the limiting effects of the stereotyping they will encounter again and again in the wider world.

Caren Gestetner is Co-director of Lifting Limits, a social enterprise with a mission to challenge gender stereotyping and promote gender equality, in and through education.  Lifting Limits is currently running a year long pilot testing its whole school, evidence-based, approach in 5 London primary schools.  To find out more about what we can offer schools visit

AdviceCaren Gestetner