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Boys can wear pink too! Gender equality in Early Years settings.

Background to Gender Equality in Early Years Settings

Much is written around creating equal opportunities for boys and girls to play with whatever they wish in early years settings. However, sexism is an everyday issue in children’s lives. Historically, pink was labelled a girl colour and blue a boy colour. Girls were deemed more likely to play quietly indoors and boys more robustly with a preference for outdoor activities. And yet, from birth adults tend to play, and speak to boys and girls differently. Females tend to get gentler treatment, while interactions with boys are more playful. Anyone with experience working with young children or with experience of rearing boys and girls will know that this not the case, it depends on the child and their personality not their gender.

The reality of Gender Equality in Early Years Practice

That being said, as practitioners, ‘are we actually creating equal opportunities for all types of play for all children or are there subliminal messages that we give without much thought’. Have you ever been in the midst of a group of children and needed to move something. Did you approach the boys to do this rather than the girls and perhaps referred to them as your big strong boys? We recently had such a situation that arose in our early years setting and upon reflection, I realised that I was in fact not being equal in my approach to the boys.  We had decided to move desks to another side of the room, and I asked three of my “big strong boys” to lift the tables to the other side of the room with me. The boy children agreed to do this and were very happy with the praise I had given them. But what message had I given to the girl children in the room. Were they not just as able and strong to help lift the tables? Of course they were but I hadn’t considered to ask them – I went for the stereotypical approach of asking the boys to do the heavy lifting work!

What did reflecting on Gender Equality in Early Years Settings tell me?

Following some research in this area, I reflected as a practitioner, on the effect of my unconscious actions. I started to become more aware of and overcome my own gender-based tendencies and attitudes.

Gender positions are ingrained in us and our society, so much so, that we do not notice how our own agency and actions maintain these stereotypes. Reflecting and acknowledging this permitted me to explore gender questions and address gender proactively in my practice. Being aware of my stereotypical approach to gender started to lead me to ensure an equality of participation for all children. I know this approach to be fundamental to emotional development.  

Settings should be free from stereotyping and labelling and all children provided with equal opportunity to learn and develop. But is this the reality?

Key Groups affecting Gender Equality in Early Years Settings


Another anecdote from practice which warrants discussion, is the division of key groups. All practitioners work with all children but each worker has their own key group to aid partnership with partents, identity and belonging and wellbeing. Let’s think about how key groups are chosen, are they chosen by the manager through random selection or by watching interaction and relationships forming and go with this.

I have noticed that my key group usually consists of a mixture of boys and the girls, whereas my co-worker always has a female dominated group. This is thought-provoking, as my co-workers group, with the majority being girls, is inclined to focus on quiet, sedentary activities, and as such, do not generally cause management problems. Therefore, ‘being quiet, settled and co-operative is validated’ (Holland 2003:24).  Little is done to change this, as the group leader has stated that she is ‘not able for some of the boys’. Therefore, at times ‘negative attention [is] directed at the boys’ as they do not comply to ‘passive…female gender schema’ (Holland 2003:25).

In contrast, my group are noisy, boisterous and explorative. I do not think of my group in negative terms, but see these traits as positive dispositions for learning. However, as a reflective practitioner, I began to examine my own thoughts on male and female persona in the setting, I find that, I would not like to be with the majority of girls as I find the boys more interactive and stimulating in their learning. How’s that for gender equality? So, on the surface we all say we are gender equal, but are we?  if we are brave enough to delve deep within us we may find a more revealing truth?

The children choose a partner for lunch and each day a child will ask a teacher, and I was shocked to note that 90% of the time I am chosen by a boy. Therefore, it seems that unconsciously the boys know that I favour them, and gravitate towards me. Reflection allows me to that I must be more conscious of this and ‘ensure that boys and girls get equal attention’ (MacNaughton, 2000:12).

Using Materials and Resources forGender Equality in Early Years Settings

All materials and resources in the indoor and outdoor environment are available to all children. Yet, any new activities devised by me, although used by both genders were generated with the boys in mind, for example, an outdoor construction area. Upon observation, it is noted that the girls are inclined to stay at the workbench and use the materials, while the boys’ commanded the sandpit and the building around it.

However, as MacNaughton (2000:29) suggests I will now ‘create dialogue’ between myself and the children about the area, encourage the children to role-play scenarios to prompt discussion and to allow ‘the children to make sense of their…play choices’. Listening in this way will allow me an insight into the thinking of all children and how ‘they are making sense of the world’ regardless of gender (Browne 2004:60).

Awareness of gender equity is required when devising future activities. This issue must be continually explored at team meetings to allow us to ‘consider the barriers that…[our] own assumptions may create when trying to meet children’s needs’ (Hendry 2012:95).

Want to learn more about Gender Equality in Early Years Settings?

The issue of gender equality provides for interesting discussions and generates significant ‘food for thought’ as it did for Jacinta.  This reflective practice is integral to our module ‘Challenging Inequalities in the Ealry Childhood’ on the level 7 degree BA in Early Childhood Studies. Jacinta Murphy is one of the lead tutors on this module where she encourages students to examine and analyse the ways in which inequalities impact on young children and explores international best practice on how to eliminate them from your own practice.

If you would like to find out more about this module and the other issues explored in the degree programme click here or contact one of our Jenny on 01 892 0031.


Jacinta Murphy is an early years practitioner for over 20 years and working for Portobello Institute for 15 years.  She has an honours degree in Early Childhood Studies and her particular area of interest is Gender.  She teaches on many of the QQI early years programmes at Portobello Institute.   Jacinta is the lead tutor of the following modules Challenging Inequalities in Early Childhood, Approaches to Pedagogy on the level 7. Jacinta also supervises some of the research projects on the Level 8 honours degree BA in Early Childhood Studies.




Bellinger, D. and Gleason, Jean Berko. (1982). Sex differences in parental directives to young children. Journal of Sex Roles, 8:11, pg. 23–1139.

Browne, N.  (2004). Gender Equity in the Early Years. Maidenhead: OU Press.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA), (2016). Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines for Early Childhood Care and Education. Dublin: Government Publications

Hendry, H. (2012). ‘Diversity in the early years’. In: Beckley, P. Learning in early Childhood: A Whole Child Approach from Birth to 8. London: Sage

Holland, P. (2003). We don’t play with guns here: War, weapon and superhero play in the early years. Maidenhead: OU Press

Lancaster, Y.P. (2010). Contemporary Issues in the Early Years. London: Sage.

Mac Naughton, G. (2003). Shaping Early Childhood: Learners, Curriculum and Contexts. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Mac

MacNaughton, G. (2000). Rethinking Gender in Early Childhood Education. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

O'Toole, J. (2000). Early Childhood Care and Education in Ireland and the Challenge to Educational Disadvantage, Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 7.

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