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Gender Differences, Reflected in Play - Dissertation Sample

20 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

Children in the primary years of school learn much both in and out of the classroom.  This is the time they begin reading, writing, and basic mathematics.  During these crucial years they are also learning who they are and how they relate to the world around them.  One important aspect of this development of self-concept is the idea of gender.  Children bring to their primary years an understanding developed through home, community, and previous educational experiences of their own genders and those of others.  However, gender concepts are often encouraged and reinforced significantly during the primary years, both in the classroom and through structured and unstructured play.


It is important to begin with an examination of what gender really is.  Most research into gender has been undertaken by those representing feminist, homosexual, or other non-traditional gender constructs, and possibly for this reason has received less attention in traditional media or education forums.  This leads to a misunderstanding of gender, its implications on the individual’s development, and its influence on the education and play of children.  However, the conscious or unconscious attitudes towards gender that surround children have great impact both on their concepts of gender definition and their own understanding of their freedom to develop a self-image within gender boundaries. 

Gender and chromosomal sex are often confused in the minds of many people.  A person is born with either male or female genitalia, which determines both their sex and gender.  This is a misunderstanding of both gender and its development within the individual.  Most people are born from a physical standpoint as either female or male, although some rare individuals are born with part or all of both physical attributes, and a rarer group with neither ().  However, physical equipment is not the determinant of gender, society is.  Most societies have historically held that physical “maleness” or “femaleness” determines gender, which then leads to the development of certain sexual desires, attributes and actions (Butler 1990). 

Physical differences were believed to create two distinct genders, male and female.  Being a man, that is, having masculine desires and performing masculine actions, is distinct and wholly separate from being a woman, with feminine desires and performances.  Masculine and feminine traits were believed to not be a matter of choice, which caused all individuals to be classified as either male or female (Hawkesworth 1997).  Importantly, this leads most societies to value a heteronormality, and try to conform to the male/female binary or somehow bring under control anyone with desires or actions outside of the these gender distinctions.  (Gamson and Moon 2004). 

People who behave outside of the traditional genders have been found to be stigmatised by society and considered deviant (Epstein 1997).  This is particularly difficult for young children who do not fit gender norms.  Little girls who excel at traditionally male activity, such as sport, or who have a boyish appearance are often the targets of slurs and bullying; even more often such are directed at effeminate boys or young men participating in traditionally feminine pursuits ().  Whilst there has been a relaxation of gender absolutes in recent years, children (and adults) still face a strong pressure from society to conform to the community’s ideas of male and female.  Society tries to “fix” individuals outside what it considers to be normative behaviour, often with the best intentions, by pressuring those in a minority gender role to conform to stereotypical patterns of behaviour (Epstein 1997).  Those who remain the male / female binary, refusing to conform, are “either excluded or demonised, and the border between the normal and the perverse is carefully patrolled” (Bem 1995, 331).

People, especially children, are therefore forced to choose one gender role or the other, or be socially outcast.  If androgyny exists, the community will typically assign gender to the individual based on appearance(Lucal 1999).  “Gender traits are called attributes for a reason:  People attribute traits to others.  No one possesses them.  Traits are the process of evaluation” (Weston 1996, 21).  Young children often use a variety of external appearance symbols to decide the gender of another, and some believe, for example, that if a boy grows long hair and wears nail polish he will become a girl (). 

By the primary years, however, basic gender definition is already substantially established, both as part of the self-concept of the individual child and in the minds of children as a group (Jordan 1995).  Children are progressing during this period, however, in the development of their own gender identity, whether or not it fits with prescribed norms.  Children during the primary years are also continuing in the negotiation of gender definitions, and are subsequently open to an expansion of gender beyond the rigid “boys act this way” and “girls act this way” stereotypes (Jordan 1995).  Teachers at the primary level have the opportunity to expand these ideas of gender to allow a wider availability of self-expression, or confirm traditional gender stereotypes, often with profound affect on their students (Jordan 1995).

This development of gender concept has extremely important ramifications both for the child and society.  Gender not only determines many of the expectations for males and females, including behaviour, roles, and interests, it in some ways determines relative value (Murphy 2003).  Gender roles “prescribe the division of labor and responsibilities between males and females and accord different rights to them… creating inequality between the sexes in power, autonomy, and well-being, typically to the disadvantage of females”  (Murphy 2003, 205).  Children are socialized, through home, community and school, into gender-defined attitudes and behaviour (Murphy 2003).

As opposed to its historic one-or-the-other binary of male or female, gender has recently been recognised as a learned performance, a set of actions and self-beliefs developed by the individual in the context of his or her own feelings and the roles offered by society (Hawkesworth 1997).  This opens the possibility for gender roles beyond the binary male/female concept.  Consequently, whilst sex is biological, gender must be viewed as derived from cultural experience (Murphy 2003).  As a cultural construct, gender involves the incorporation of various symbols, which may support, exaggerate, or even distort the potential of the individual (Hawkesworth 1997).  

Gender is created over time by the repetition of these symbols, with how the acts are interpreted from society to society allowing for a diversity of norms in gender actions (Butler 1990).  For example, for two grown men to hold hands as they walk down the street would be considered a homosexual symbol in the UK, but is common practise and holds no such connotation in parts of Africa.  Each society has a distinct set of symbols for gender orientation, although there are many commonalities from community to community (Runker and Duggan 1991).  Within a given society, boys learn what it is to “act like a man,” and by repeating these actions over time establish their masculinity and themselves as males.  Girls learn to “act like women,” that is, to dress and behave in whatever society has defined as a feminine manner. 

This leads to a definition of gender as a performance, something each individual acts out, rather than a biologically based construct (Butler 1990).   This view provides a number of gender possibilities outside the traditional male/female, and also challenges what is “male” or “female” behaviour.  For example, who determined that girls should play with dolls but not trucks, and boys with trucks but not dolls?  Bem (1995) refutes such absolutes, holding that masculine is not the opposite of feminine, but that an individual can be both masculine and feminine at the same time, or even strongly one or the other at different times. “There is a co-dependence between femininities and masculinities which means that neither can be fully understood in isolation from the other” (Reay 2001, 153-154).  

Epstein (1996) describes Kinsey’s research into gender as determining genders to fall over a continuum rather than in two distinct groups.  This continuum spans male, female, homosexual, heterosexual, and everything in between.  Rather than being either “male” or “female,” with distinctly matching interests and sexual desires, an individual is somewhere in this fluid range of gender (Epstein 1996).  Each person performs repetitive actions and builds gender-based concepts, which determine his or her place on the continuum of gender identity.  This further determines whether he or she “feels” like a man or “feels” like a woman, or perhaps identifies with some other self-produced category (Bem 1995).

Research has indicated that children have a strong desire to mimic or be like those they consider similar to themselves.  (Pidgeon, 1994; Thorne, 1993).  For example, “Boys create and preserve their masculinity through fear and rejection of whatever might be construed as female” (Jordan 1995, 75).  The understanding of themselves as different from girls, the participating in activities that make them “feel” like boys, the avoidance of pursuits or behaviours others might associate with girls, and most importantly copying what they perceive to be masculine behaviours help boys determine and reinforce their feelings and understanding of being “male” in the traditional male/female gender binary. 

This is not limited to boys.  Most children are highly motivated to learn and practice whatever actions or concepts they deem necessary to achieve what they personally consider to be gender-appropriate behaviour.  This gender-appropriate behaviour is usually developed at home from a very early age, and reinforced through school and community experiences (Thorne 1993).  Unless those in positions of authority or influence specifically address issues such as social justice and gender bias, most children will come to believe that the two distinct genders, male and female, and their associated contemporary gender boundaries are both natural and correct.


The definition of genders within society is often hegemonic.  To be able to recognise constricting or reinforcing behaviours within the area of gender, then, it is important to first examine how the society in question defines masculinity or femininity.  There tends to be more research on hegemonic masculinity than femininity, presumably because of its impact on world systems of governance, economics, and power (Cohn and Weber 1999).  The patriarchal society that still dominates world society rests on such masculine definition (Cohn and Enloe 2003).  Whilst women are increasingly included and allowed positions of influence in such systems, most would concur the systems still operate by and for men, as they were designed.  Women who participate must do so within a male construct and paradigm, which is sometimes at odds to their own preferences for dealing with a situation (Cohn and Enloe 2003). 

Male Hegemony

Connell (1995) first developed the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ to describe the definition of masculinity preferred by society.  He argued that at any particular moment in history, there are number of different masculinities presented in a given society.  However, society values one or a few masculinities over the others, setting this definition up as the “ideal” to which men (and boys) should aspire.  This ideal is constructed in relation to both these other masculinities and to femininity in the society.  Setting up one type of masculinity as ideal allows the society to justify the dominance of this gender norm within it, justifying the domination of men who fit this definition over women and men outside it (Cohn and Weber 1999).  “Hegemonic masculinity preserves male power through the denigration of women” and men outside its boundaries (Ashley 2003, 258).  “It has led to a narrowing of cultural opportunities for boys through the perceived need to conform to narrow ‘macho’ stereotypes which requires boys to exclude themselves from any activity popular with girls” (Ashley 2003, 258).

Many writers typify the military as the pinnacle of hegemonic masculinity, and use it in describing male gender definitions in Western countries.  Cohn and Weber (1999) describe the military as promising to mould boys into a “real” man, “the hegemonically masculine man, which is, of course, seen as something good” (462).  Typical characteristics of the successful soldier include physical and emotional courage, loyalty, ability to endure hardship, fearlessness, compartmentalisation of one’s emotions, and tolerance for and willingness to take risks.  “And male bonding – you can’t be a man until you’ve bonded with other men” (Cohn and Weber 1999, 461).

  Cohn and Weber (1999) argue, however, that instead of “producing all of these culturally admired qualities we associate with hegemonic masculinity,” such gender boundaries, compartmentalisation of emotion, and reduction of anything feminine "creates some of the crippling qualities of manhood (Cohn and Weber 1999, 463).  Men are forced to conform to such limiting boundaries, such as “real men don’t cry,” and are restricted in the socially acceptable means by which they can practise self-expression.  Men are categorised as dominant, aggressive and warlike, women as passive, compassionate and peaceful, and anything outside these definitions is not considered appropriate or positively reinforced (Tickner 1999).

This link between reinforcement of masculinity in the military and in the classroom is often played out in power struggles and bullying within a given class, or the school as a whole.  “In the early school years most of the boys' co-operative play revolves around such fantasies, and boys who are not capable of positioning themselves within these narratives are excluded from peer play” (Jordan 1995, 78).  There is further a strong reinforcement of “the 'warrior' discourse, a discourse that… depicts the male as the warrior, the knight errant, the superhero” (Jordan 1995, 78).  In this context, the masculinity of the hero or the boy in a position of power is derived from and dependent on the behaviour of others, above whom he positions himself, thus confirming his male dominance and masculinity (Jordan 1995).  This is often reinforced by girls, who will ignore their own wants or needs to make sure dominant boys feel comfortable, and are likely to simply agree with these boys or avoid them rather than explore issues between the two or assert their own rights (Moylan 2003).

Within the primary classroom, much of the power assumption and bullying documented is gender-based, aimed at girls, or more prominently, at boys outside traditional hegemony.  Sexualised harassment is common, and clearly linked to the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity (Renold, 2000).  Skelton (2001) has concluded from research that “primary school boys engage in the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity through a discourse of ‘gay’ and ‘girlie’ against peers who do not overtly engage in the hegemonic performance of ‘football, fighting and girlfriends’” (19).  However, “given the opportunity, far more boys than currently do would rebel against hegemonic masculinity and its cultural proscriptions… Many boys are unhappy with the enforced dichotomy between public and private self” (Walker, 2001, 132).

Social class is also a component of what type of man a boy aspires to be (Ashley 2003).  Roughness, for example, is more prized amongst working-class boys.  In a study of a typical British primary class, Reay (2001) notes the class of nearly thirty was primarily working-class, with two middle-class boys.  Although one of these boys was not particularly interested in sport or likely to participate in fights, he was still considered one of the most popular boys in the class.  Reay hypothesises the class adjusted its definition of the requirements of masculinity due to his social status, as a similar working-class boy was not afforded such acceptance.  She further concludes this variance “suggests that popular discourses may mask the extent to which white, middle-class male advantages in both the sphere of education and beyond continue to be sustained” (Reay 2001, 157).  There is an “almost unspoken acceptance of white, middle-class masculinity as the ideal that all those ‘others ’—girls as well as black and white working-class boys—are expected to measure themselves against. (Reay 2001, 157).

Overall, it is clear that encouragement and reinforcement of a narrow definition of appropriate masculinity is limiting for many boys, hampering both their growth and development of true self-identity.  If schools are able to expand the perceptions of acceptable gender behaviours, these boys will be allowed to express themselves freely and explore who they are, the same freedom afforded boys who naturally fall within the hegemonic stereotype

Female Hegemony

Considerably less research has been undertaken on hegemonic femininity, which should be noted in and of itself.  Studies find a greater array of acceptable behaviour for girls, however, although bounded strongly by social class.  For example, in a study of working- and middle-class primary school students, Reay (2001) found that whilst there were some shared attributes, the desirable characteristics of one group differed significantly from that of the other.  Quietness, propriety, and diligence in one’s studies were all found to be valued characteristics for the middle-class girls.  In addition, Reay’s study reaffirmed “findings of feminist research which position ‘being nice’ as specific to the formulation of white, middle-class femininity (Reay 2001, 159).  Working-class girls were more likely to be sexual in their expression, or present as tomboys.  For the majority of these working-class girls, “being a ‘nice girl’ signified an absence of the toughness and attitude that they were aspiring to” (Reay 2001, 159).

There was a considerable emphasis on appearance, all but the tomboy group highly valuing feminine clothing and accessories, such as hair ornaments or fingernail polish.  In another study, girls stressed “the difficulty and constant negotiation involved in positioning themselves as fashionable and desiring a fashion that at one moment rendered them attractive and at another labelled them a ‘tart’ in the regulation of their bodies and their bodily expression (Renold 2000, 314).  Interestingly, it was often other girls applying the pressure for such tight-rope positioning, further indicating the importance of peer influence on gender negotiation, even at a young age (Renold 2000). 

Girls were critical of their physical appearance, with a very narrow physical ideal presented to which they wished to conform.  “Typical daily rituals included checking and regulating arms, legs, hips and thighs, positioning their bodies and others’ as ‘too fat’ or ‘too thin’ and advocating the need to diet” (Renold 2000, 310).  The tomboy group was the only one in either study to construct gender identities through differentiation from both “feminine” girls and boys.  This group was most likely to pursue alternative dress and fashion. (Renold 2000, 316)

In terms of relationships, girls are encouraged to be helpers of others and supportive of both the teacher and boys in the class.  Girls of all social classes are typically expected to be polite, kind, and compassionate to others in the classroom.  Women and girls are hegemonically expected to be collaborative, work together, and devise win-win alternatives to problem-solving (Rabrenovic and Roskos 2001).  Girls failing to perform within such gender determinants of appearance and action are typically ostracised from social and play activities, and often become the butt of the bullying and teasing, described above, by which other girls and boys position themselves within the group (Runker and Duggan 1991).


Prominent in both hegemonic masculinity and femininity is the emphasis on heterosexuality as normative behaviour.  This has an extreme effect on gender norming, even amongst pre-sexual children.  Although their is a prevalent believe that heterosexual relations somehow symbolise entry into adolescence, Epstein (1997) and others have documented how six-year-olds “date” each other, and how even four- and five-year-olds practise and reinforce heterosexuality in their interactions and play (Epstein, 1997).  There is considerable external pressure to conform to heterosexual gender norms for all children.

  Boys are often taunted homophobically if their classroom or playground interactions with other boys were questionably feminine, or if they themselves “failed or chose not to access hegemonic masculine discourses and practices”  (Renold 2000, 322).  Girls are reported to “construct their femininity, or what might be better described as ‘hyper-femininity’, through a specific, culturally coded somatic ideal, viewing their bodies as only desirable when, through the validation of others, they are heterosexualised” (Renold 2000, 311).  Boundaries of heteronomativity are fiercely enforced by peers, and also by authority figures such as parents and teachers (Frank et al 2003).

Renold (2000) and Reay (2001) both indicate a high number of heterosexual pairings, often refered to as boyfriend and girlfriend by the children involved, amongst children in the primary years.  These relationships further solidified the heterosexuality of the children involved, and called into question the gender boundaries of those who did not participate.  For example, Connolly (1998) noted that some primary-aged boys chose not to engage in heterosexual boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. 

Some stated they were not ready or too young, while others stated a desire to wait until they could experience a “real” relationship involving intimate sexual activity.  In a similar finding, unless boys such as these “successfully performed as ‘tough-guys’, ‘footballers’ or were ‘sporting competent’, their ‘heterosexuality’ would be called into question and they would often be ‘homosexualised’ and denigrated as ‘gay’” (Renold 2000, 320).  This provided two limited routes through which a boy in the primary years could establish his heterosexual hegemonic masculinity, either sport or girlfriends (Connolly, 1998). 

Heterosexual boundaries are therefore shown to further support the development of hegemonic masculinity and femininity, as the two are typically developed through rejection of the other.  That is, a true male rejects anything in or around him that is feminine, and separates from such “polluting” attributes.  The same is true in reverse, although less dramatically, for females (Cohn and Weber 1999).  This makes it all the more important that the school environment encourage a wide range of gender definitions, allowing students options later for legitimate self-expression, rather than forced conformity.

Gender from the primary years

“Gender behaviours and differences are learned from birth and have a profound impact on identity and social roles” (Pidgeon, 1994). Most children learn these gender definitions through interaction with their families and to a lesser extent their community.  Many are also influenced through previous educational environments such as infant school.  “Children who spend full days in a childcare environment learn much about what it means in such a setting to be a boy or a girl. Children also learn gender roles at home and bring rules of gender socialization into their childcare settings” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 153)

  It is important to note, however, that children’s gender definitions are not fixed in the primary years.  Rather gender roles are socially constructed throughout a person’s life in ways both ongoing and active (Thorne, 1993).  Another facet of note is the finding by Pidgeon (1994) that children do not learn what is and is not a gender-appropriate behaviour by imitating the actions of others.   While the actions of others and the positive or negative reinforcement they provide has a profound and fundamental affect on gender definition, children also make choices related to gender negotiation, and “demonstrate their own ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl” (Pidgeon, 1994, 24).

Young children become aware of gender gradually in relation to themselves, and later in relation to other people.  Most have achieved some type of gender identity by age three (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  In a hegemonically traditional environment, they come to accept that all persons will be either male or female, and that gender will generally be constant by the age of five.  Most learn that gender is stable, and remains fixed throughout a person’s life (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  This makes it important to examine the gender constructs children are already likely to have developed before entry to primary school.  Studies have shown that strong hegemonic conceptions of gender are already dominant in most children’s thinking by this time (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  

Infant schools, day-care facilities, and even home environments are often heavily stereotyped to “male” and “female” conventions.  Boys are conventionally dressed in clothes that allow for range of movement and active play, while girls are often “dressed up” in clothing that promotes quiet or less active play (Runker and Duggan 1991).  Similarly, boys’ toys are typically bright, primary colours, and include things that require larger movement for play, such as cars, trucks, blocks, and balls.  Girls’ toys are more likely to be pastel in colour, with pink being the most favoured colour for girls amongst toy manufacturers.  Girls’ toys are typically replicants of items associated with the traditional roles of women, such as miniature kitchens, dishes, and houses.  Dolls require smaller, less aggressive movement in play, with typical doll-based activities including tending the doll, such as through dressing or bathing, and role-playing with the doll, reinforcing relationship priorities amongst girls (Runker and Duggan 1991). 

Books were found to strongly favour males, although there is some evidence this pattern is decreasing.  Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter (2002) found that “when the caregivers in the young toddler room read to the children, the main characters in the books were usually male” (52).  Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993) also came to similar conclusions in their study on the gender roles typically depicted in children's literature.  While they found a greater equality in representation of male and female characters in recent years, the depictions of gender were highly conforming to stereotypical gender roles.  The vast majority of books reviewed in the study represented male characters in positions of leadership, problem-solving, and power. 

Girls were likely to be represented as nurturers, helpless, and dependent (Kortenhaus and Demarest 1993).  Evans (1998) similarly found that girls who did occupy leading roles in children’s stories typically “still required the assistance of males to solve some type of dilemma” (Evans 1998, 84).  Evans cites a number of other studies that concluded “males were more often the powerful and active characters. Females, on the other hand, were described or depicted as sweet, weak, frightened, and needy. These researchers argued that children's literature may do a disservice to children if it does not accurately represent men and women and the different roles they portray in our Society” (Evans 1998, 84).

Children are also often treated differently according to hegemonic gender expectations.  Thorne (1993) found that boys in infant school consistently received more attention than girls, even though this attention was often associated with inappropriate or disruptive behaviour.  Boys typically exhibit a much higher activity level than girls, and while a small proportion of this difference is shown to be biological, most has been documented to be from gender conditioning in the environment (Thorne 1993; Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).  Infant boys received positive reinforcement for assertiveness, rowdiness, and rough play, whilst girls were negatively reinforced for such behaviours. 

Accordingly, girls were positively reinforced for helpful or caretaking behaviour, passivity, and cooperation in the infant environment, whilst boys were often asked if something was wrong when they displayed such behaviour (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).  Boys were expected to be more active and therefore require more attention, which researchers noted to be provided by caregivers.  “Extra attention to boys was evident also in the infant room, where they were held and spoken to more frequently” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 150).  Infant girls were more likely to occpy themselves quietly and not demand consideration, and accordingly received less attention (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).

It can therefore be concluded that most children enter their primary years with a good amount of hegemonic gender reinforcement already under their belts.   “The process of the socialization and formation of sex roles begins long before school instruction begins: from birth on, parents treat boys and girls differently; they make different demands on them; children are given different toys to play with; they acquire different kinds of experience, and so on” (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77).  By the time they begin their primary years, boys’ and girls’ behaviours and self-concepts already include a number of gender-based characteristics, from a wide variety of origins (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77).

Gender int the primary Classroom

By the time they enter the primary school years, children usually have become aware of culturally accepted gender norms in their society and have at least partially negotiated their gender self-construct (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  At this point children typically prefer playing with those of their own gender, reinforcing gender hegemony to which they have been previously exposed.  This segregation by gender is more likely in situations where there is little or no interference by adults, indicating it is the children’s preference (Maccoby 1988).  As children spend further time within gender-segregated groupings, traditional gender constructs are further reinforced, and the more time a child spends in same-sex contexts, the more likely he or she is to exhibit a strong pattern of gender differentiated behaviour (Maccoby 1988).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of children entering primary classes were reported by teachers to exhibit traditionally gendered behaviours.  Those that did not were generally rejected by teachers in some way, or encouraged to change to a more traditional gendered behaviour (Reay 2001).  For example, girls were expected to prefer collaborative work, working for a win-win outcome, and having a quiet, orderly working environment (Burgess 1990; Jackson 2002).  Teachers also expected girls entering primary school to be better adapted to learning activities, to more easily able to understand teacher’s directions and explanations, to organise their own activity very well, and to have in general a more positive attitude towards school than boys (Buzhigeeva 2004, 81-82). 

Teachers not only expect such behaviours from girls in their classes, but punish girls who do not conform to these expectations.  Connolly (1998) reports that girls who behave in an assertive or disruptive manner are more likely to be viewed negatively than boys exhibiting the same behaviour.  Reay (2001) desribes two such girls who refused to take traditional submissive gender roles in class.  They espoused a philosophy of “giving as good as they got” and “doing it for themselves,” and were not hesitant to confront challenges by boys, even physically. 

While similar behaviour from boys in the class was described as “boys being boys,” from these two girls its was viewed inappropriate and actually counterproductive to learning.  Reay further reports this type of activity, “which ran counter to traditional forms of femininity resulted in them being labelled at various times by teachers in the staffroom as ‘real bitches’, ‘a bad influence’ and ‘little cows’” (Reay 2001, 160-161).

Frank et al (2003) found while refusal to participate was generally accepted in boys, it was frowned upon in girls and caused them to be labelled as uncooperative.  “The implicit acceptance of the position of ‘healthy idleness in boys,’ which affirms that no healthy boys ever work at a subject they dislike.  ‘Healthy’ boys were and are seen as those who do not necessarily take up the work of schooling, and, conversely, boys who engage in the process of working hard for good grades are by contrast, unhealthy” (Frank et al 2003, 122).  Boys were more likely to be punished or negatively reinforced for traditionally female behaviours by male teachers or principals, or by peers. 

In most classroom environments, students were positively reinforced based on hegemonic gender norms.  Girls were reinforced for their appearance, such as dress and hairstyle, or for helping or being cooperative.  Boys received more compliments related to their size, intelligence, or physical prowess (Derman-Sparks 1989; Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002).  “When teachers talk with boys about appearance, interactions are usually brief and move quickly to discussion of physical skills or academics” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 152).  Similarly, teachers are less likely to praise girls for academic achievements than neatness. Reay (2001) reports a girl receiving a perfect mark on an assignment was praised by the teacher for her handwriting, while a boy receiving a high but less-than-perfect score was praised for his performance.  “This sends a gender specific message to young males and females that could contribute to biased attitudes in children” (Evans 1998, 83).  It teaches girls to concentrate on externals in order to receive praise, and boys to concentrate on learning and success.

Teachers also structure classroom activity and their own behaviours based on gender.  For one thing, boys often receive more attention in class.  According to the United States’ 1992 American Association of University Women (AAUW) report, females in primary school “received significantly less attention from teachers than did males…. Teachers typically interact more with male students, whether it is to verbally reprimand them, to answer their questions, to elaborate on their comments, or to help them with schoolwork” (Evans 1998, 83).  French and French (1984) and Swann and Graddol (1988) similarly found that not only did teachers give more attention to boys than to girls, boys as a group were provided greater access to certain kinds of learning experiences.  This included more open-ended and challenging questions being directed towards boys, greater likelihood of boys to perform experiments or hands-on activities, while girls watched, and power in classroom discussions and decisions more frequently given to boys by their teachers contributed to inequalities. (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).  

Boys were typically described by both male and female teachers of both sexes as “more intelligent, and better able to grasp difficult concepts, when compared to girls” (Gordon 1998, 55).  Girls in the late primary years were seen as over-occupied with love affairs and romance, and morally weaker in their behaviours.  “Girl pupils are more often perceived, by both male and female teachers, as the initiators of sexual activity with boys and male teachers than as the victims of sexual harassment and abuse” (Gordon 1998, 55).  This is significant as teachers award visibility, to some degree, based on their perceptions of students.  Highly `visible' children, those who achieve high levels of attention from teachers and visible interaction with peers, are more likely to be boys; reciprocally, `invisible' children, who receive less attention and visible interaction with peers, are more likely to be girls. (Jacklin and Lacey 1997).

There is also a tendency to use girls as an instrument of classroom control, regardless of its impact on their learning or self-constructs.  The idea that girls enhance boys learning by exerting a “civilising influence” has been present in the educational community for decades (Jackson 2002).  Parker and Rennie (2002) report several teachers they surveyed stated they were likely to use girls’ presence and influence in their classrooms to manage boys’ behaviour, regardless of the effect of the practise on the girls being so used.  Creese et al (2004) similarly noted teachers regularly used girls to straighten up the classroom, including messes made by boy students, who were not required to clean up after themselves.  Girls were strongly positioned as helpers by both the teacher and the boys in the class, and were positively reinforced for participating in this positioning and negatively reinforced for refusing it.  Jackson and Smith (2000) similarly found girls often assume a care-taking role with boys, and are encouraged to do so (Jackson and Smith 2000). 

Further, many teachers assigned homework with the understanding that primarily the girls would be the students completing it, and often did not punish boys for not completing this assigned work.  Teachers also reported they still often designed homework assignments with boys in mind, even if they expected more of the female students to complete the tasks (Parker and Rennie 2002).  Within classroom assignments, teachers report avoiding deficiencies in boys’ written work and poor communication skills by allowing the class to rely on the girls’ superior abilities in these areas.  In general, they are less likely to provide girls with opportunities to take risks in their work or interaction, or to address open-ended questions presented to the class apart from the boys’ leadership (Parker and Rennie 2002). 

Boys also face censure from teachers when behaving outside traditional gender constructs.  Boys who flaunt the above stereotypes and studiously apply themselves to their school work are often teased or bullied by their peers, and if they are also effeminate in appearance or manner were documented to be harassed or put down by teachers, particularly male teachers, as well (Mac an Ghaill, 1994).  Similarly, boys who enjoyed helping activities in the primary classroom were often ridiculed as “sissies” or “pets.”  Those boys who did not excel in Physical Education classes were reported to be derided and slandered homophobically by both their peers and their instructors.  In short, they were rejected and punished for not “being the right kind of boy” (Frank et al 2003, 122).  Interestingly it was the high status boys in a given context, rather than teachers, that typically initiated such response to boys outside traditional hegemonic masculinity.  Teachers were then sometimes likely to participate or reinforce this behaviour (Ashley 2003).  

Single-Sex Schools

The all-girls school allows for consideration of gender norming in the educational environment without the “opposite” gender to contrast against.  Whilst most of the research on gender hegemony involves males, advocates for single-sex educational constructs usually do so on behalf of girls.  Warrington and Younger (2001) cite a variety of research, all of which concludes, “single-sex classes give teachers the opportunity to challenge girls’ traditional stereotypes and the gendered perceptions of certain subjects, and enable teachers to build up girls’ confidence and self-esteem in non-traditional subjects” (341).  A wider variety of gender performances were found to be tolerated or encouraged in the all-girls environment.  For example, Burgess (1990) reports girls’ are more likely to pursue active leadership roles in same-sex schools, positions traditionally sought by boys.  Once the action of leading becomes an accepted part of these girls gender identity, they have been found to be more likely to continue to pursue leadership opportunities, even if they return to a mixed-sex educational setting (Warrington and Younger 2001).  

In addition, girls in single-sex schools have been found to be more likely to study subjects outside traditional “female” boundaries, such as the hard sciences and mathematics, and are further more likely to succeed in these subjects (Stables 1990).  Girls who participate in all-girls mathematics classes have a greater likelihood of choosing to go on to even more challenging math courses (Parker and Rennie 2002).   In a co-educational school offering single-sex courses, girls enrolling in the all-girls GCSE physics class were over three times more likely to continue with A-level physics than those in the mixed GCSE class (Parker and Rennie 2002).  In a same-sex learning environment, girls are not confronted with tension between succeeding in traditionally “male” subjects and maintaining their femininity.  Interestingly there is not a reciprocal effect on boys in same-sex classes, with if anything an increased pressure on conformity to hegemonic masculine performances documented. 

Even the decisions for same-sex programmes are heavily influenced by what is perceived to be in the best interests of boys.  In one recent study, over half the LEAs implementing single-sex instruction of some kind did so in response to underachievement by boys, not the needs of girls (Warrington and Younger 2003).  Another thirty percent of the schools in the same study undertook the system change to address boys’ inadequacies in English and modern foreign languages, with less than twenty percent of schools moving to single-sex instruction to meet the needs of girls or encourage their academic achievement (Warrington and Younger 2003). 

Girls and their parents are also often hestitant to advocated for their educational needs.  For example, a number of schools which initially moved to same-sex instruction to right boys’ behavioural problems are planning to return to co-educational instruction, even though same-sex instruction has proved to be strongly beneficial for girls.  Girls themselves “are accustomed to their roles as supporters of the boys, and whilst many girls regard boys as nuisances or pests, many girls do seem concerned that boys should not suffer as a result of initiatives introduced by the school, even if the girls feel that they themselves benefit from such initiatives” (Jackson 2002, 43-44).

Jackson (2002), reviewing and building on research done by Askew and Ross, found that when girls were not present in the classroom environment, “weaker boys ‘take the place’ of girls and provide a ‘butt’ for proving masculinity,” suffering at the hands of the positioning of more hegemonic males (44).  Notably, this is a reason provided by many to avoid single-sex educational systems such as the all-girls school.  School administrators are reported in a number of LEAs to be considering returning girls to mixed-sex classes to protect such non-hegemonically masculine boys from harm (Jackson 2002). 

Presumably, the girls will protect such boys by reclaiming their place as the ‘butts’ against which masculine positioning and bullying are levelled.  “One school, which had introduced single-sex classes mainly because of behavioural problems among boys, was contemplating abandoning it precisely for the same reason:  a survey amongst staff in this school found that an overwhelming eighty-six percent of staff felt boys’ behaviour to be a problem in single-sex groups” (Warrington and Younger 2003, 347).

Gender at Play

It is not surprising that hegemonic gender roles encouraged and reinforced in the classroom are then practised by children during play activities.  They have probably been playing within the confines of traditional gender norms for most of their lives.  Thorne (1993) contends play has a major role in how young children construct gender; Pidgeon (1994) agrees, holding that as children develop their gender identities, they naturally begin to select gender-typed toys and activities. “It is through imaginative play that children begin to explore and understand gender roles” long before their schooling begins (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 149). 

Parents interactions with female children tend to be more protective than with male children, hindering female children’s ability to engage in independent problem-solving and their willingness to take risks.  “Boys remain more distant from their parents; they have to deal with a broader range of phenomena in life, which stimulates them to greater cognitive activity” (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77).  In addition, children are more likely to be praised by parents or other authority figures for stereotypically gendered play, such as girls with dolls and boys with trucks. 

As discussed above, many children also have experience highly stereotyped play environments at home, in their communities, and in previous educational situations even before they arrive at primary school  (Runker and Duggan 1991).  Selection of toys and play activities, for example, which is initially done by parents or other authority figures, influences gender development.  From an early age, different types of toys are routinely provided to girls and boys for play, and over time they respond to these toy selections by choosing gender-based toys and play activities (Pidgeon, 1994).  At the primary level, “toys and games for boys are more oriented to encouraging the development of independence, an exploratory approach to the accomplishment of tasks, and a better understanding of spatial relations” whilst girls toys and games encourage discipline and following rules, a submissive approach to tasks, and an emphasis on relationship skills (Buzhigeeva 2004, 77). 

Children are further aware which types of toys are intended for them, and most comply with such leading during play times (Runker and Duggan 1991).  Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter (2002) observed that children during play periods at school “consistently exhibited gender separation in their choice of toys, activities and playmates” (152). Girls preferred dolls, play telephones, purses, shopping carts, and colouring pages, whilst boys were attracted to trucks, blocks, squirt buts, and puzzles.  In one all-girls class, toys included “rocking chairs, washer and dryer sets, kitchen sets, dress-up clothes, a shopping cart, baby dolls, and a twirl around play set. There were no blocks, building sets, tool sets, trucks, or cars” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 152).  Girls played more often with each other and in role-play scenarios, such as “playing house.”  Boys were more apt to choose physical activities such as bowling (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 152). 

As boys are encouraged to be assertive and outgoing in the classroom, such behaviours are also highly prized by peers in play.  This is encouraged in many play areas by providing boys more active play equipment and a greater proportion of play space (Thorne 1993).  This, coupled with gender reinforcement in the classroom and at home, encourages boys to engage in active, aggressive play, and marginalises any boys who resist such play or choose other play activities.  Sport, particularly very physical sport, is a strongly desirable activity for establishing hegemonic masculinity amongst young boys.

  “Participation in sports is considered essential for males, with rugby being considered the most `masculine’ and `virile’ of all the sports” (Gordon 1998, 54).  Close male friendships, and important part of boys gender negotiations, are often forged through sport activities such as football.  These activities “allow aspects of male bonding that might be disrupted by a feminine influence” causing the “no girls allowed” clause so typical of young boys’ play (Ashley 2003, 266).  When boys choose to play quietly outdoors, researchers found the boys were often asked by teachers why they were doing so, with questions such as “are you feeling all right?” and “Don’t you want to play with the others?” being common (Evans 1998).

Boys also use play and prowess at play activities in negotiation of social dominance.  Those who are able to organise or lead their team, typically the most popularly positioned boys, and those who exhibit particular athletic skill are promoted within the group (Runker and Duggan 1991).  This reinforces both male bonding (being part of the team) and male-specific activities as part of the boys’ gender definitions.  When playing with girls, boys similarly use power and control strategies that support both their dominance as males and a separation of genders.  This often causes girls to withdraw from play activities, leaving the boys in their gender reinforcing, all-male group  (Walkerdine, 1998).  Ashley (2003) has also “clearly demonstrated boys’ preference for the mesomorphic (athletic) physique amongst their peers” when awarding social position or friendship (Ashley 2003, 266).

Girls, responding to reinforcement of the traditional gender emphasis on relationships, tend to favour relation-based play.  “Girls were more frequently observed to experiment with adult roles, many of which were gender typed, such as playing house, talking on the phone, and shopping” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 152).  When relationships are uncomfortable, such as when boys are involved and try to dominate play or when two members of the play group are uncreconcilable, many girls will simply avoid play, and are often commended for doing so (Walkerdine, 1998).  Just as girls are more typically inactive participants in all aspects of school life, so they are often passive in play activities (Thorne 1993). Evans (1998) contends that the repeated gender messages sent to girls through their environment effectively silences them both in an out of the classroom. 

Girls’ play is predominantly domestic, through which they focus on the development and maintenance of a few close relationships with other girls.  The best friend and small group of close, intimate peers is highly important to both girls’ play and gender negotiations (Runker and Duggan 1991).  Girls typically participate with this group in role-play and other play activities modelled on real life.  Through this play they reinforce both their current roles as girls and anticipated future roles as women, practising also skills in building and maintaining support networks (Runker and Duggan 1991). 

When girls choose active, rowdy play activities, they often receive negative feedback from teachers.  For example, one girl was asked if she had been drinking coffee by a classroom instructor because she was behaving actively, although boys exhibiting similar behaviour received no such comments.  When a group of boys and girls was later playing on the sliding board and crawling over its sides, “the girls were cautioned to stop crawling or they would ‘hurt their bellies,’ although no comments were made to the boys” (Chick, Heilman-Houser and Hunter 2002, 151).  


Both male and female children are typically exposed to and heavily reinforced in hegemonic gender roles from a very early age.  Whilst this can help them in making gender distinctions, it also limits them to two gender possibilities within the traditional male / female binary.  This prevents many children from both gender performances and exploring activities of preference to them.  Many researchers have documented that whilst the education system is more attentive to boys wants and needs, it also more strongly encourages conformity of boys to a hegemonic masculine stereotype, and marginalises boys who do not fit this narrow definition of maleness (Jordan 1995).  Girls have a wider range of options in gender negotiation, with sampling traditionally male activities from a “tomboy” gender definition being somewhat socially acceptable in many situations.  The pressure to conform to hegemonic heterosexual femininity, however, increases strongly as girls near the end of the primary school period (Reay 2001).  

As it is unlikely to happen in the home ore community, it is important for the healthy development of all children that the educational environment provide a safe place for gender exploration and negotiation, allowing the individual child the freedom to self-determine his or her gender identity.  This will only be accomplished through deliberate increased awareness of teachers to encourage and reinforce a gender continuum, both in the classroom and in play activities.  As children both learn from play and play what they learn, emphasis on a variety of gender definitions in play empowers both our children and society to develop to their full potential.

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