Recognising Gender In Early Education

A common phrase told to expecting or new parents is ‘it’s a girl / boy’ and this begins an individual’s characterisation of gender often before they are even born. Yet with an increasing number of children being referred to gender identity services (2,288 according to GIDS, 2019) identifying with gender dysphoria, its crucial to be certain about what we mean by the terms gender and sex in order to explore why there has been an increase in young people experiencing gender dysphoria. For the purpose of this article, firstly, I draw upon the definition from the National Health Service (NHS, 2019) who suggest our understanding of biological sex is about the appearance and classification of a person’s genitals. This definition of sex can initially be seen as a very binary process unlike that of gender, which, Butler (1999) and Fine (2010, 2017) consider to be how a person perceives or experiences themselves. It could therefore be argued that there is a connection here to the nature nurture debate (Fairholm, 2012) which, although does not have to be a binary choice, does separate the biological sex of a person (nature) from the socially constructed influence of ones gender (nurture).

As social constructivism tells us, the lived experiences we have are heavily socially influenced by the interactions we have. Our construction of gender is the same, and I believe, something that is not explored enough within the early years sector. Working across the Early Years and primary education, government policy, legislation and then setting based policy continuously demands inclusive practice in terms of children’s learning and education. Across the early years sector there is a focus upon the importance of the unique child (DfE, 2017) and how the role of the key worker is imperative at getting to know the development and abilities of the children in their care. Likewise as we progress into the primary focus of the National Curriculum (DfE, 2015) individual success is encouraged and although assessed differently to the Development Matters Framework (Early Education,2012) still has a focus to develop PSE within schools. This consistency highlights the need for practitioners and teachers to know the children they are developing. Much wider legislation such as the Equality Act (2010) and SEND CoP (2015), for example, takes this focus further than the education system to across all areas of society and abilities. These legislations reinforce the idea that Inclusive practice should go beyond initial developmental abilities and include sex, disabilities, ethnicities etc… However, despite the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2016) stating that gender has been highlighted as a key influencer on children’s educational attainment, there are no clear policies to highlight the importance of recognising a child’s gender perception nor to promote the wide spectrum of gender for children and young people. Whilst the Equality Act (2010) recognises that within its protected characteristics both sex and gender reassignment are protected elements for an individual, gender reassignment within this Act focuses on reassignment in terms of moving from one gender to another. Thus still suggesting that gender is seen as a binary process rather than recognising that we all have a spectrum of gender and can move within this without needing to ‘choose or self-assign’. It is therefore fair to suggest that this lack of awareness in policy and lack of focus within practice provides limited unique support for children based on their gender performance (Butler, 1999) which adds to the already complex topic of gender identity.

As with any approach, Butler’s (1999) theories around gender performativity pose limitations. The concept of her ideas suffer from social reductionism, in that, the physiological aspects of gender appear to have been ignored or overlooked. One key aspect of the physiological element and a more biological approach (Miller, 2016) to gender connects us to the concept that biologically only women can bear, birth and biologically feed children. Historically and evolutionary, this physical fact suggests that there is a distinction in roles which are biological not performative and therefore criticising Butler’s social construction and performativity. However, Fine (2018) would argue that such biological aspects are the only differences in physiological gender as she argues that the human brain is not aligned with either binary sex or gender, rather it is the hormone levels which influences the body’s growth and behaviour. This suggests that a biological approach to gender is not incorrect by stating biological differences in hormone levels, but also highlights that as Fine (2018) indicates, the brain is not defined by such hormones and therefore Butlers (1999) proposition of a socially constructed performance of gender is also worthy of exploration. However, whilst both the biological and social perspectives to gender pose arguments, those working within the Early Years workforce are likely to have been exposed to a number of educationalists whom appear to be stuck in a binary comparative discourse between how ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ learn. Yet, in doing so they are continuing to feed into social stereotypes by reinforcing such limitations on learning. If, as practitioners, we were able to support Fine’s (2018) ideas that the brain is not aligned to a specific gender, one could adopt a more social cognitive (Martin and Szkrybalo, 2002) perspective to gender and learning which suggests that children learn through their social interactions but that they are also active participants in their own gender development. This requires a shift in thinking beyond the ‘fixed’ gender based learning approach.

In their research ‘Lifting Limits’ (2019), Dame Alison Peacock and her team do just this by highlighting the dangers and significance of gender stereotypes across childhood. Aligning the importance of social constructivism and gender, Peacock’s (2019) research enlisted children as gender detectives to highlight the unconscious bias in relation to gender stereotypical language behaviours, resources and more importantly attitudes within primary education. The significant findings of this research highlighted that there was an imperative need to recognise the Early Years as a time for potential intervention to close gender gaps but to also look closely at children’s gender through the lens of achievement and success. This suggests that in closing gender gaps we not only have to challenge gender stereotypes but to also examine children’s learning and development through their personal connection with gender across various platforms including the physical and virtual learning spaces. This idea reinforces the need to examine children’s internal understanding of gender spectrums as behaviours alone cannot dictate our understanding as practitioners.

Gender across different platforms

The explosion of a virtual world and use of technology over the 21st century has changed the accessibility and opportunities children have to share their thoughts and self-representation. The opportunities for children to engage in virtual worlds has not only embraced the gaming industry but is also increasingly influencing the education sector. Research such as that from Harrell and Chong-U (2017) and Fong and Mar (2013) explore the use of avatars across the gaming industry and begin to consider their use, purpose and influence within the sector, both considering the choices of avatars and how children use them within the online world. However, with children as young as preschool now developing avatars as a form of self-representation there seems a need to continue exploring how young children are using avatars as a form of self ‘performance’ (Butler, 1999) or self-representation. Madison (2013) suggests that there is a difference between the ‘virtual world’ and ‘actual world’, terms previously coined by Boellstorff (2008). However, they also argue that despite there being a key difference, there is an increasing connection and flow merging such worlds together, thus suggesting that when thinking about expressive platforms, there is a need to examine both worlds in order to gain a true picture of the subject being explored. Therefore, both the physical world and the virtual one present a range of different social exposures around gender stereotypes which provide complex platforms for gender performance. It would therefore be fair to argue that there is a need to examine gender performance across these different learning platforms. It is often, increasingly, down to practitioners, Early Years managers and researchers to explore how this should happen across the sector.

Kate Dudley
Lecturer in Early Childhood, Education and Care
Newman University


Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.

Department for Education. (2015) National Curriculum in England: primary curriculum. London: Crown.

Department for Education. (2017) The Early Years Foundation Stage. London: Crown.

Early Education (2012) The Development Matters Framework. London: Department for Education.

Fairholm, I. (2012) Issues, debates and approaches in psychology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fine, C. (2010) Delusions of Gender: The real science behind sex differences. London: Icon Books.

Fine, C. (2017) Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the myths of gendered minds. London: Icon Books.

Gender Identity Development Service (2019) Information for Young Children. [Accessed online 4.1.20] Available at:

Martin and Szkrybalo (2002) cognitive theories of early gender development. Psychological Bulletin, vol 128, No.6 903-933.

Miller, C. (2016) Gender Development, Theories of. Arizona state university. Research Gate. Available online at:

Peacock, A. (2019) Lifting Limits: We can ALL be who we want to be. Available online at:

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