In most elementary schools, boys have long been welcome in the dolls’ corner and girls in cage football. But gender neutral education is about much more than that. There are also a lot of implicit stereotypes in schools.
Chris van Groningen is not a teacher. Not a master either. But only: Chris. Henn is not binary and explains this at the primary school in Amstelveen where she works. “It’s okay for the students, they sometimes make a mistake and call me ‘they’ instead of ‘they’, but it’s not a problem.” In fact – if Chris thinks about it – some colleagues are the ones who have the most difficulty with it. Especially when Chris started an online petition to make schools more gender-neutral, they were told: Is this necessary? “At my school they are quite progressive, they are no longer like: dolls’ corner for girls and cubes for boys, but we still have to take some steps.”
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And according to Jan Jaap Hubbeek, this is true of many (primary) schools. He worked as a teacher for years and is now an education officer and creator of the Genderwijs podcast where he looks at how schools deal with gender and sexuality. The reason was the child of a close friend of Hobeck’s, who was born as a girl but emotionally impotent. “I started to look at our education through his eyes and realized that unconsciously we were making a lot of assumptions. I was shocked by that.” Now take the urination string. The child Hobeck was talking about had to choose every day. Should I choose the blue chain and boys’ toilet, or the pink one? “The school agreed that she could choose for herself. But the child was thus busy every day. Where do I shower in the gymnasium? What do I sit when the class is divided into a boy’s side and a girl’s side? What do I do when mom and dad are playing? This kid was stuck in those choices.” exhausting.”
‘What do I do when mom and dad are playing?’ This kid was stuck in those choices. exhausting
According to Hebeck, education is often based on averages, “but there are many nuances that deserve attention.” It does happen, but often in quirks and blots. This year, the first elementary school to openly present itself as “gender neutral” opened in Lent. “But that’s the only thing I know,” says Joyce Endendijk, a teacher at Utrecht University who researches gender development in children. “There are schools that are working on it and know how to do it, there are schools that are still looking for tools and there are schools that think it’s bullshit.” Not everyone sees the benefit or necessity of a gender-neutral education. This topic, Endendijk discovered, always provokes two types of reactions: the traditional camp wants nothing to do with it and sees it as a left-wing pastime, and the pro (“growing”) group wants children to be able to develop. Complete freedom without restrictive gender boxes.
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Which camp is right? According to Endendijk, there isn’t a lot of scientific publication indicating that gender-neutral education has a clear positive or negative effect—much of the research is still in its infancy. In Sweden, there are now some studies of gender-neutral nurseries there, with initial positive results. Children of different races work and play more together there. Endendijk: “It’s important, because in high school, and also when you start working, it’s in your best interest if you can work with everyone.”
In addition, there are many studies that show the negative consequences of education where gender and differences are emphasized, for example in the language used by the teacher (good morning boys and girls) or if cooperation takes place mainly between children of the same sex. “We know this encourages gender stereotypes and bias.” According to Endendijk, there are also studies that show that normative, traditional upbringing can lead to gender differences in aggressiveness, depression, and fears. For example, parents with traditional views on sex use more physical discipline with sons than with girls, which is then associated with more aggression with boys than with girls. “And what you’re also seeing is that children react very strongly to gender non-stereotypical behavior.” He laughs when the boy is in the ballet, for example.
Endendijk explains that this is partly due to the fact that the brains of children between the ages of six and ten are not yet very sensitive to nuance. “If they are not sent, they still think in boxes: This one is for the boy, this one is for the girl.”
Children are by nature fluid between the sexes. They explore, play with, and misinterpret those symbols. There is a difference in our language in the definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, but that’s just what you teach children.
These boxes were not invented by children, says Margrethe van Heche, a cultural scientist and expert in gender and queer studies at the University of Amsterdam, they are culturally specific. Children are by nature fluid between the sexes. They explore, play with, and misinterpret those symbols. There is a difference in the definitions of “masculine” and “feminine” in our language, but it all depends on what you teach the children. His sister, and a boy wants to be a wild cat.” Wonderful went. It was discussed briefly but no big deal, and if the parents or teachers were wrong, they were held accountable by the children. “It’s a boy. Children are resilient.”
“It’s a very compelling system,” says Hubbeek. “If you don’t fit in, you’re an outsider. But education is not only about whether you can count and write well, but also: Who do you become as a person? Are you yourself?”
According to Hubeek, teaching more gender neutrality is an embedding problem. “A teacher has to ask himself every now and then: Is everyone welcome in my class? Or am I, subconsciously, putting someone in a box?” According to Endendijk, language is largely used. “Say ‘Good morning, everyone’ – so that every child feels treated, as NS does so well with ‘Dear Passengers.'” She also advises: Don’t divide your class into boys and girls. Ask a boy to help clean up and don’t just ask the boys to carry heavy things, but also point out the girls. And it speaks not only of “father and mother” or “husband and wife”, but also of “wife and wife”, “husband and husband”, or – more generally – “partners”.
blocks and dolls
Endendijk sees “very beautiful things happening”. Doll and building corners in one, schools where play and work together are encouraged between boys and girls, where it is perfectly normal for as many girls to be involved in a game of soccer as boys. “But it also requires something from teachers: They must also dare to engage in conversation.”
For example, it was recently discussed in the teachers’ lounge at Chris’ school that a teacher in her class asked her if everyone wanted to stand up with long hair. There was also a boy with relatively short hair. He kept insisting that “my hair is long”, and was saddened when his classmates denied it. After a conversation, it turns out that this boy really wanted long hair, but his parents wouldn’t allow it.” Chris: “So you know as a teacher that you’re going to have a complicated conversation with the parents.”
“The guy is the norm in the textbooks, just like the straight couple”
Van Heesch says publishers have a role to play in this. “The man is the norm in the textbooks, and so is the straight couple.” In 2019, scientists at the University of Leiden conducted research on representation in textbooks for first-grade students. It indicated that the number of female characters in the books was “much less” (41.4 percent) than the number of male characters. In more than 3 percent of the characters, we could have inferred from the context what someone’s sexuality was: “The opposite sex was involved in all cases.” Also, no celebrities are found in the books who are “commonly known to be homosexual”. The researchers stated that they mainly saw the presence of implicit stereotypes. “It is precisely because of that implication that not all teachers are aware of it,” says Van Heesh. “And there’s already a lot on their to-do lists. That’s why it’s important that this representation is already on the books.”
Van Heesch strongly advocates bringing stories of people who fall outside this norm, stories of queers, into education. “Let’s hear all those different points of view.” Chris would like to see that more often, too. “I’m 21, I have elephant skin when I’m faced with misunderstandings or bad questions. But the kids are still searching, more vulnerable. I’d like to pay more attention to them, and above all: more space.”