Gender conflict in preschools

Fathers who do not want their son to dress up in girls' clothes present a challenge to Swedish ECEC practitioners. The same is true of girls who want to dress in a very feminine fashion.



The Nordics have a reputation as the countries with the most gender equality, but exactly how is gender equality manifested in ECEC institutions?

A large-scale Nordic project has aimed to determine how Nordic preschools work with questions about values in general. A group of Swedish researchers took a closer look at how childcare practitioners have approached gender as a value.

How do children learn to ‘be like a girl’ or ‘be like a boy’ in ECEC settings?

The notion of ECEC institutions as gender-neutral

To figure this out, the researchers conducted a study of eight Swedish ECEC institutions, some rural and some urban. They carried out 10 group interviews. In the interviews, the floor was opened for group discussions among the employees about values. Each group consisted of about seven practitioners, ranging in age from 20 to 65, in addition to a researcher. Approximately 95 per cent were women, and 5 per cent were men.

The discussions revolved around everyday anecdotes from ECEC institutions.

The researcher Anette Emilson reports that the topic of gender was often raised in talks about ECEC values.

‘The employees seemed rather convinced that ECEC institutions are like islands in the ocean of society, that is, that they are gender neutral.

They found that they had to work hard to counter the conventional perception that it is a biological fact that girls and boys are different and must therefore be treated differently. That attitude is pervasive outside of ECEC institutions’, they state.

In their day-to-day activities, the families staff encounter often have traditional attitudes. The fathers’ attitudes present particular challenges to the equality work in ECEC institutions.

Traditional attitudes sneak in

The staff of ECEC institutions intentionally strive to circumvent stereotypical gender patterns, like that girls should do ‘girl things’ and wear ‘girly’ clothes, and that boys should do ‘boy things’ and dress ‘boyishly’. ‘Nevertheless, staff experienced that some of the parents, fathers, in particular, were working against them’, Emilson points out.

‘One father might, for example, get very upset at seeing his son dressed in girls’ clothes, and say: ‘What on earth is this silliness?’.

‘At that point, the employees had to argue that the Swedish curriculum for kindergartens says that it is their job to promote gender neutrality in ECEC institutions, and that, at preschool, girls and boys should get to choose for themselves how they want to dress when they play’.

On the one hand, the ECEC employees deny that there is a difference between girls and boys, but in the course of talking, the researcher found that practitioners’ own ideas about gender differences surfaced.

They might, for example, say: ‘Since there are two genders, there must obviously be a reason’. Or: ‘It’s much quieter in groups that have many girls because boys are so noisy’.

‘Such comments, which tend to sneak into conversations, indicate that gender neutrality is not something the employees are 100 per cent sure of themselves’, comments the researcher.

‘The employees seemed rather convinced that ECEC institutions are like islands in the ocean of society, that is, that they are gender neutral.’

Children are allowed to explore their own interests

In the discussions, the ECEC employees also touched on the fact that gender neutrality is not always preferable.

Children should be treated as group members with equal opportunities, but they should also be treated as individuals. This means they should be allowed to play whatever they want to play, even if the activity is stereotypical of one gender or the other.

Have boys more freedom than girls?

One dilemma to which ECEC practitioners seem rather oblivious, is how they handle femininity. They think it is fine for boys to play like girls.

In the interviews, they commented, for instance: ‘It is amusing to see boys dress like girls, in dresses and tights’.

‘But when girls arrive in pretty dresses and patent leather shoes, they are treated differently,’ Emilson remarks. Staff members often point out that such clothes are unfit for playing.

Emilson concludes that while boys are urged to explore their feminine sides, the trappings of femininity are not appreciated in girls.

‘This translates into more freedom for boys in ECEC institutions, while limiting girls’ freedom’.