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Gender norms and considerations in the Early Learning Years

So often when I read articles and research reports about gender ‘norms’ and stereotypes and the impacts these have on girls, I am reading articles or reports about teenagers. Last month however, I came across some research published by the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (AGSA) that detailed gender research findings on students in the Early Learning Years; three to five year old students. The Research Report, written by Iskender Gelir is entitled, Gender norms and traditional cultural understandings: Gender in the early childhood classroom (2022).

Gelir’s research report (2022) reflected on the changing ethnic and cultural demographic in Australia as detailed in the most recent national census (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021) and explored how the ethnic and cultural diversity has influenced gender norms. While the study discussed in the research was not conducted in Australia, it contains relevant translatable points for our Australian context. For example, the report drew the readers’ attention to ethnicity, language and other cultural beliefs that may not receive formal recognition in the classroom and highlights possible impacts this can have on children and families of diverse backgrounds (Stroja, 2022).

Gelir’s research led him to state that “children position their gender roles according to the values and expectations of their minority community” (2022, p. 302) which in some cases can vary from those that are supported and promoted at school or in the community of a new country. Interestingly, Gelir suggested pre-school teachers can have a significant influence on the gender constructs of small children as these constructions are formed largely in a performative as opposed to biological way. That is, time spent at school can expand the children’s notions of what constitutes gender traditional roles. 

The research study discussed particular challenges to a child’s thinking of what constitutes gender roles when the community of the minority group has clearly defined roles for men and women, such as mothers undertaking housework and with lower levels of education, and father’s having far higher levels of literacy and numeracy being the clear “head of the family”. While there may be some initial ‘tensions’ between cultural understandings of gender roles within minority groups and those of the broader community, it is important that each student’s cultural diversity is validated while at the same time enabling each student to explore gender roles more broadly as they move through their years of schooling.

I am a strong believer that learning is not limited to the school classroom and nor should it be. As the author of the AGSA article noted, learning that draws on a child’s pre-existing knowledge and culture, can complement the learning that takes place in the school environment, particularly if the early learning educators are aware that children’s prior experience can influence their understanding of gender constructs

I am thankful that our school community reflects a rich diversity of cultural backgrounds. The conversations that students have with their teachers and with each other can only serve to create openness, appreciation, acknowledgment and acceptance of each other's differences. It is through experiences of this diversity in a safe and supportive school environment that, from their earliest years, our students explore, refine and define their thinking and notions of important issues such as gender norms. 

Dr Deborah Priest

Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia (2022) (accessed 7 September 2022).
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2021, June 17). Migration, Australia.
Gelir, I. (2022). Becoming a girl and boy: Preschool children’s construction of gender roles in the community and nursery. Early Child and Development and Care, 192(2), 302-312.
Stroja, J. Displaced Persons, resettlement and the legacies of war: From war zones to new homes. Routledge.