I this, I will complete a literature review in

I           Introduction


In the schoolroom more
than any other place, does the difference of sex, if there is any, need to be
forgotten (Anthony,

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Words spoken more than 150
years ago, yet is still a topic of discussion today. Sexism is an issue that
takes place in many schools. One of the most primitive things to say as a
teacher is ‘good girl’ or ‘good boy’ – where we are unconsciously reaffirming
that these are two different things and subsequently encouraging children to
believe they are expected to behave in a particular way because of their


I have therefore decided to
focus my assignment on this aspect of diversity and the way in which the
classroom setting can operate as a space which is used to construct gender
differences. By the time they start school, children have begun to construct
their own ideas about appropriate behaviours for girls and boys. According to
Thorne, children are socialised into these gender arrangements (1993:2) through
the social interactions they have at an early age. Parents dress girls in pink
and boys in blue, give them gender-differentiated names and toys, and expect
them to act differently. Teachers frequently give boys more classroom attention
than girls. Children pick up gender stereotypes which pervade advertisements,
television, films and books that they are exposed to. Thus, it can be argued
that rather than gender roles being fixed at birth, they are a product of society.
So, as the feminist movement and gender equality have taken on a greater social
relevance, do children still feel pressure to behave a certain way to ‘fit in’
with these gender stereotypes that have so long prevailed?  


In order to investigate this,
I will complete a literature review in which I will look into gender specific
terms. I will then explore key themes that have arisen from the information I
have collected and the data gathered from observations of one particular
student. The child I have chosen to focus on for my case study is an 8-year-old
girl, who I will refer to as Amber, who is in Year 4 in a mainstream primary
school in South London. Amber is an EAL student of Polish descent. She is the
eldest of two children, and has a younger brother who attends the same school. She
has long, blonde hair, is extremely helpful and academically excellent – you
could say an ‘ideal girl’. However, Amber has


already constructed her own
identity away from social and cultural norms defining herself as a ‘tomboy’. I
am interested in the history of this term and how post-structural feminism

and cultural expectations have
built up allowing terms such as this. I will consider how schools can play an
important part in the development of gender stereotypes and can be places where
prevailing gender roles are challenged and reformed giving children the freedom
to shape their own identities. Consequently, by having a better awareness and
challenging preconceived beliefs I can reflect on the implications to my own practice.



II          Literature Review


This literature review will
focus on the issue of the construction of gender in the primary school setting.
Historically, the term gender was adopted as a means of distinguishing between
biological sex – being male or female – and was fixed at birth. The idea that
male and female brains are structured or hardwired in different ways (Browne,
2004) has been a topic of much debate over the years. It is believed that young
children are biologically born with their sex identity and as they grow and
develop, they learn about their gender roles through interactions with the
environment. Feminist views criticise this perception of gender as limiting in
that it adheres to dominant societal constraints that label gender as binary.
“The binaries” – the terms male and female or masculine and feminine – is
strongly embedded in most patriarchal cultures where one is consistently
privileged over the other (MacNaughton, 2005). Gender theorists challenge this
idealism. Judith Butler (1990) argued that gender is constructed through a set
of acts through “performance that is constituting the identity it is purported
to be”. For Butler, gender is a verb – something that individuals actively ‘do’
through performance that we are taught to recreate, rather than an inherent or
innate quality. This idea of gender as performance highlights the situational
fluidity of gender and how as individuals we able to construct our own gender
identity. However, society places a great emphasis on sex and the way in which
we implicitly point towards one’s sex. Mackay-Kallis (2012) argues that we are
exposed to gender roles frequently and sometimes unconsciously, absorbing it if
it fits with the category that society has influenced us to perceive it as.
Gender roles are repeatedly reinforced through socialisations which force
individuals to “learn what is expected, see what is expected, act and read in
expected ways, and thus simultaneously construct and maintain the gender order”
(Hackman, 2013). Children are exposed to these sexist discourses from a young
age, influencing their understanding of gender. Schools can play an important
role in challenging and disrupting these discourses, giving children the
freedom to shape their own identities subsequently promoting gender equity from
a young age.


It is a popular understanding
that female-male differences can be explained through the notion of biology
which claims there are hardwired differences in the brains of females

and males (Browne, 2004; Gray,
2013). We tend to think of the argument that ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from
Venus’. Thus, in education, boys are assumed to be more inclined to the
sciences and girls to humanities. A growing number of scientists are
challenging this “neurosexism” arguing that there are no major neurological
differences between the sexes (Fine 2010, Rippon 2014). Cordelia Fine (2010)
argues that the wiring in the brains of women and men is “flexible, malleable
and changeable”. She stresses that “the studies that claim to highlight
differences between the brains of males and females are spurious” and that this
literature ignores the similarities between boys and girls by implicitly
supporting the gender essentialist perspective (2012). Thus, stereotypes are
born and accepted which has changed the way children are being taught.


There has been much research
into how girls and boys are treated differently, particularly within education.
Despite a range of interventions, gender impacts many aspects of school life
including friendships and subject choices. Schools are sites where gender
identities are practised, developed, policed and enforced – they can be
incredibly gender normative. Consequently, gender stereotypes are proliferate
and there is still the belief that “boys will be boys”. Historically, heavy
social pressures were applied to those who didn’t act according to the “norm”,
for example boys who liked “girls” forms of play. This has since evolved by
developments in feminist, post-structuralist and queer theories. This concept
of gender development, however, suggests that children are primarily learners
who are acted upon more than performing themselves. You could say this is much
like a child in the classroom.


Barrie Thorne has contributed
significantly to the study of how children construct and experience gender in
social contexts at school, specifically the playground. She concluded:


When girls and boys avoid one another, organise
playground games against one another or tease those who do things with members
of the opposite sex, they emphasise gender as the most important feature of
social relations, however when they work or play together they challenge
traditional gender ideologies (Thorne, 1993).


Thus, we need to acknowledge
that playgrounds can be very gender segregated spaces which can enforce these
stereotypes. Thorne demonstrates a dynamic approach that examines how children
construct gender and sometimes challenge gender structures and meanings through
the concept of “gender play”. Her analysis was not on the individual but


social relations and
organisation – “the collective practices through which children and adults
create and recreate gender in their daily interactions” (1993: 4). Thorne
argues that children, as well as adults, socially construct gender through
“forming lines, choosing

seats, teasing, gossiping,
seeking access to or avoiding particular activities” (1993:157). She believes
that gender varies in salience from situation to situation which in turn
challenges the gender boundaries that exist between boys and girls. A girl will
always be a “girl” but in some interactions, she may be much more aware of her
identity than others, just as ethnicity or age may be more relevant in some
situations than others. Thorne uses the term “crossing” to allude to the
process through which a boy or girl may “seek access to groups and activities
of the other gender” (1993:121). The children that operate at these boundaries
want to participate in activities stereotypically associated with the other
gender and this is often where teasing or name calling, such as using the terms
“tomboy” and “sissy”, have taken place. Whilst the term tomboy is granted more
socially and parentally accepted than sissy, due to persistent cultural
expectations that the tomboy figure displays positive qualities associated with
the “masculine” (Thorne 1993), and the belief that this is a temporary act for
pre-pubertal girls (Paechter, 2010), tomboy is also a pejorative label,
implying gender deviance and so it can be argued that this term helps
perpetuate gender stereotypes.


Michael Messner (2000)
reiterates the views of Thorne and more so the emphasis society puts on gender
roles. He criticises other theories of gender construction saying that they
placed a lot of emphasis on the role that adults played in constructing gender
identity of children and how it is important not to neglect the fact that
children often create their own gender definitions through interactions with
other children. Messner agrees with Thorne’s theory of how gender is formed
through group interactions rather than solely on the individual. In his Barbie
Girls versus Sea Monsters report, Messner argues that:


Performance of gendered boundaries “occurred in
the context of a situation systematically structured by sex segregation,
sparked by the imposing presence of a shared cultural symbol that is saturated
with gendered meanings, and actively supported and applauded by adults who
basked in the pleasure if difference, reaffirmed.


Messner uses this multilevel
analytical framework to explain his perspective on gender which “is not simply
that individuals “have”- like the colour of their eyes- rather, it is actively
constructed by groups, within institutional and cultural contexts that are
themselves organised by gender, and saturated with gender meanings”.




Carrie Paechter is another
important figure in childhood feminist post-structuralism who has further explored
the interaction between gender relations and children’s play practices (2005, 2007).  Paechter draws on Butler’s work and provides
insight into the embodied practices of masculinities and femininities as
“performed identities” which are “naturalised through parental beliefs,
expectations and practices”. Paechter also believes that children establish and
maintain masculinities and femininities to a certain degree in early years’
classrooms, primary schools and playgrounds. Paechter describes schools as
“sites of normalisation” where children develop “an understanding that girls
and boys behave, think and learn in particular ways” that is underpinned by
“considerable surveillance as well as the disciplining of children’s minds and
bodies in conformity with the practices of school life”. This image of
children’s bodies and regulation within school spaces is in line with Foucault
(1978) who pointed out that children’s bodies, and children’s sexualities, are
both ubiquitous and denied within the school system. However, it is important
to acknowledge that this heavy policing of what schools consider to be the
“norm” can promote gender inequality and prevent a child from reaching their
full potential.


Barbara Martin (2011) expands
on Paechter’s work and invites us to examine children’s thinking and actions to
understand how they learn gender. Martin encourages us to avoid stereotypical
gender choices for children and rather to help them explore their environment
and the choices they make. Although Martin’s work was around the early years
setting and free-flow play, this interlinks with the primary school setting and
it is important to remember that as educators we need to continue to accept and
encourage deviance from what is supposedly considered the “norm”, rather than
have a reluctance to intervene.


This research aids my
exploration of the ways in which children construct their gender identity and
how sexist discourses of our society can shape them. It offers explanations of
ways in which children cross gender boundaries and deviate from what society
view as ‘normal’ behaviour of boys and girls. Educators need to be aware of
their own social-cultural values and practices that they may subconsciously
replicate in the classroom. We cannot completely shelter children from the
gender norms of society, but gender discrimination and inequality in education
will persist if we fail to ignore children’s assumptions of gender roles.






III         Child Study


The tendency of little children to
think that it is their clothing or toys that make them boy or girl (Kerr & Multon, 2015).


I will use the evidence I have
gathered about my focus child, Amber, and how she has constructed her own gender
identity away from this “norm”. I will consider how my findings relate to the
views of feminist post-structuralisms that were explored in my literature
review and later use this to reflect on the implications for my own practice.


Amber was observed over the
course of a term in a number of settings including in the classroom, the
playground, on a school trip and at a school disco. Conversations also occurred
with Amber, her friends, and various teaching staff. Although English is
Amber’s second language, she is extremely competent and is currently at the
expected level of achievement for her year group in all core and foundation subjects,
particularly Science. Amber is a considerate child who always listens
attentively and fully participates in classroom discussions. Outside of school,
she engages in a variety of activities including playing football for the local
girls’ team and playing the drums. Her dress sense is typically ‘boyish’ –
trousers, backwards baseball cap and trainers. All of which can be commonly perceived
as ‘male qualities’.


A child’s perception of


Amber defines herself as a
‘tomboy’ – a term centred around interest in activities stereotypically
favoured by boys. According to Cordelia Fine (2010) the activation of gender
stereotypes can also influence not just how we perceive others, but also
ourselves. I had the following conversation with Amber and her friend:


Amber: I don’t play with her
because she is too girly.


Friend: Yeah, Amber is a


Amber: I am a tomboy.


Student Teacher: What do you
mean by tomboy?


Amber: I like playing football
and stuff like that.


It is interesting to see that
Amber has labelled herself in this way because of how she sees herself compared
to her peers, but also how her peers see her. This pattern occurs with Paechter
(2010) who points out that “attributions of tomboy or girly-girl identities are
made by inference from public manifestations and projections read by others”. Ambers
obsession with football also contributes to this perception. Despite this,
Amber does not play football at playtime and her friendship group mainly
consists of these girls she likes to call ‘girly’. It appears as though Amber
is conforming to the gender norms of society because of gender boundaries in
school through, what I interpret as, inclusion or exclusion during play. This
will be discussed later on.


The tomboy identity


Amber’s tomboy identity is not
only marked by her interest in football, but also her rejection of feminine
clothing styles. Amber gave not wearing skirts and not liking pink as two
reasons why she put herself in this group. She consistently turns up to school
wearing trousers which is a salient


In Diane Reay’s (2001)
research study, she touches on the idea that there is a general assumption
among boys that maleness, if not a superior subject positioning, was a more
desirable one – in simpler terms, it is better being a boy.



Playground segregation


Children enact gendered power/knowledge
relations in and through the ways in which they use communal spaces, and use
these as part of the legitimation of certain bodily practices and mental
attitudes and the exclusion of others, within particular

spatial contexts (Paechter, 2007).


There have been a range of
interventions at my placement school including a playground rota, but gender
continues to impact on children’s participation in certain playtime activities,
their interests and their friendships at school. Although Amber appears
comfortable in her chosen identity, from my observations, it seems as though
she feels she is unable to get involved with the playtime activities that
interest her the most. When I asked Amber why she didn’t join in and play
football, her answer was:


Amber: The boys won’t let me,
they don’ think I’m good enough.


Student Teacher: Why do you
think they think that?


Amber: Probably because I am a


Student Teacher: Do you think
you’re good enough?


Amber: Yes, I think so.


Student Teacher: Then you
should join in.


This notion that ‘boys are
better than girls’ has appeared throughout studies of gender, as well as my own
observations. Boys tend to be encouraged to be competitive at sport and so
develop improved spatial skills. This is not because of an innate superiority
that some research suggests. I am reluctant to dismiss this idealism and as a
teacher will strive to disrupt this gender bias that is being exaggerated and
intensified by our culture. I believe that every skill, attribute and
personality trait is moulded by experiences, whether that be at home or in
school. On observing the playground on my break-time duties it is clear to see
that the older boys tend to dominate playground spaces, and this seems to be a
consistent pattern through the literature in the field (Thorne, 1993, Renold
2005, Paechter, 2007). This hierarchical world of the playground, because of
gender, links back to Foucault’s (1978) ideologies about masculinity and social
power. It seems as though Amber is implicitly complying with these gender
hierarchies perhaps because she views the “masculine” to have the predominant position
in this particular situation. It is also important to consider why, in this
conversation, Amber has rejected her previous claim of being a tomboy. This
links to Thorne’s (1993) theory that gender varies from situation to situation.
Consequently, in this situation, Amber is perhaps more aware of her gender and what
could be argued, her thoughts of the gender appropriateness of femininity.


At first glance, Amber appears
to be extremely popular with her peers. However, on closer inspection, Amber
appears to be somewhat of a ‘loner’.