The last time I wrote about Dr. Laura Nelson, she had successfully waged a campaign against the U.K. toy store Hamleys, demanding they remove their gender-specifc signage. Since then, Dr. Nelson has only intensified her fight for gender equality, especially as it relates to children.
Her newest endeavor is the introduction of Breakthrough, a teaching program that aims to explore the influence of gender stereotypes within the classroom, and how they may be stopping children from reaching their full potential.
The hope is that this program will kickstart a conversation about gender between parents, teachers, and even students. While certain gender stereotypes can be frustrating and limiting outside the classroom, dealing with those inside of one can have grave consequences. Starting up this dialogue will hopefully make those who interact daily with children a bit more aware of how these stereotypes truly affect them.
The program, which will debut at the Soho Parish School in central London is will cover all aspects of gender stereotypes and to emphasize asking questions rather than making assumptions. The two-week program, which runs during the end of the month, will tackle questions like: Why are there differences in the behaviour, aspirations and attributes of boys versus girls, why do they exist and what are the implications?
The goals of the project are numerous, but are all essential. In addition to raising awareness of gender stereotypes among schoolchildren, the Breakthrough program strives to stimulate discussion and debate as well as encourage children to fulfill their potential as individuals, without being restricted by gender labels.
When Dr. Nelson reached out to me to discuss the program, I was more than happy to talk with her about it. I make no secret of how gender stereotypes have the ability to box in and limit children, and the effect of this can be worrisome, especially as it relates to education. I’ve written before about deciding against a preschool program where the director made assumptions about EZ based on his gender without even having observed him, so to have somebody acknowledge that not only is there a real issue here as far as gender stereotypes and education goes, but to actively work to remedy that? Color me intrigued.
I was able to ask Dr. Nelson a few questions about the program in anticipation of the first training session:
Mamafesto: What caused you to get involved in gender stereotypes from an educational standpoint?
Dr. Nelson: In December 2011, I successfully campaigned for Hamleys toyshop to remove its gender-specific signs. This received a huge amount of media coverage and a great deal of support – from parents, children and others. From my work as a political blogger and interactions with commenters, I’d already come to suspect that gender identity and stereotypes were at the heart of many inequalities we see in society. In other words, there was a widespread belief that girls and boys, and women and men, were different in the way they think and behave, and this – in many people’s minds – justifies the different roles, pay, interests and aspirations of the two genders. After researching the science and evidence, I concluded that we were not in a position to make such a bold assumption and, worse, making that assumption leads to discrimination, stereotypes and inequality, and restricts people’s choices and freedom. My mission then became to raise awareness of this issue, and especially of the science as that’s my personal background (I have a PhD in neuroscience). A meeting with a very inspiring Primary School teacher – Laura Kirsop of Soho Parish School – sparked the idea of working together on a lesson programme with the aim of raising awareness of gender stereotypes, which fitted in with the National Curriculum. Laura Kirsop ran a preliminary lesson that was centred around the Hamleys campaign, which I attended, and I was struck by the intelligence, insight and creativity of the children, and the potential to them to make up their own minds and draw their own conclusions about the influence of gender stereotypes. The children carried out a survey of their peers, gathering their own thoughts and concerns about gender stereotypes. This inspired us to design the two-week programme, and we received full support from the headteacher, Rachel Earnshaw, parents and governors.
What impact do you hope to see in the classroom from those who take part in Breakthrough’s training programs?
The aims of the programme are to raise awareness, stimulate debate and encourage children to fulfill their potentials as human beings. The first measure of impact will be from the children themselves: are they engaged in the lessons? Are they drawing their own conclusions and making their own links? The emphasis is on encouraging the children to question stereotypes, and not at all about pushing them into thinking a certain way. We will be gathering feedback from the children, and also from the parents, teachers and governors. In the longer term, we will continue to monitor feedback: did the children feel they benefited from this programme? We hope to have helped the children see the world in a more open-minded way and to be confident to make their own decisions about themselves and their futures.
How receptive have the local schools been toward the program?
We have received a huge amount of support and interest from other schools, teachers and governors, and also other people who work with children. People are getting in touch asking if we can work with them to introduce the programme into their school. This is very encouraging and indicates the need is there.
What are your hopes for the future of the Breakthrough program? How widespread do you see it going?
The Breakthrough programme is groundbreaking and offers the solution to a need which is more and more pressing in this highly pressurised and stereotyped society. The potential is huge – many schools, teachers and parents are interested. The plan is to roll it out to further schools and develop a system and model for doing so. My aim it to benefit as many children, teachers and parents as possible. Our children are the next generation. If we want a tolerant and accepting society with empowered people free to be themselves and to pursue their true paths in life, then we must give children the tools and environment with which to create that.