25 May, 2023 | Posted by Jacinta Murphy

Gender Equality in Early Years Settings – Are We As Equal As We Like to Think?

Gender Equality in Early Years Settings – Are We As Equal As We Like to Think?

Much is written around creating equal opportunities for boys and girls to play with whatever they wish in early years settings.

However, sexism is an everyday issue in children’s lives. Historically, pink was labelled a girl colour and blue a boy colour.

Girls were deemed more likely to play nicely and boys more robustly and to prefer more outdoor activities.

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And yet, from birth adults tend to play with, and even speak to boys and girls differently. Females tend to get gentler treatment, while interactions with boys are more playful.

Anyone with experience working with young children or with experience of rearing boys and girls will know that this is not the case, it depends on the child and not their sex. 

That being said as practitioners, are we actually creating equal opportunities for all types of play for all children or are there subliminal messages that we give without much thought?

Have you ever asked a group of children to move something for you and referred to them as your big strong boys?

We recently had such a situation that arose in our early years setting and upon reflection, I realised that I was in fact not being equal in my approach to the boys.

We had decided to move desks to another side of the room, and I asked three of my 'big strong boys' to lift the tables to the other side of the room with me.

The boy children agreed to do this and were very happy with the praise I had given them, but what message had I given to the girl children in the room?

Were they not just as able and strong to help lift the tables?

This allowed us to reflect as practitioners on the effect of our unconscious actions and allowed us to become more aware of and overcome our own gender-based tendencies and attitudes.

Gender positions are ingrained in us and our society, so much so, that we do not notice our own agency and actions which maintains these roles.

Reflecting and acknowledging this permitted us to explore gender questions and address gender proactively in our practice.

This leads to equality of participation for all children which is fundamental to emotional development.

Settings should be free from stereotyping and labelling and all children provided with equal opportunity to learn and develop. But is this the reality? 

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Another anecdote from practice that warrants discussion is the division of key groups. All practitioners work with all children but each worker has their own key group to aid partnership with parents, identity and belonging and wellbeing.

Let’s think about how key groups are chosen, are they chosen by the manager through random selection or by watching interaction and relationships forming and go with this?

I have noticed that my key group usually consists of a majority of boys and girls, whereas my co-worker always has a female-dominated group.

This is thought-provoking, as my co-worker's group with the majority of girls is inclined to focus on quiet, sedentary activities, and as such, do not generally cause management problems.

Therefore, ‘being quiet, settled and co-operative is validated’ (Holland 2003:24). Little is done to change this, as the group leader has stated that she is ‘not able for some of the boys’. Therefore, at times ‘negative attention [is] directed at the boys’ as they do not comply to ‘passive…female gender schema’ (Holland 2003:25).  

In contrast, my group are noisy, boisterous and explorative. I do not think of my group in negative terms but see these traits as positive dispositions for learning.

However, as a reflective practitioner, I began to examine my own thoughts on male and female persona in the setting, I find that, I would not like to be with the majority of girls as I find the boys more interactive and stimulating in their learning.

How’s that for gender equality?

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So, on the surface we all say we are gender equal, but are we if we are brave enough to delve deep within us?

The children choose a partner for lunch and each day a child will ask a teacher, and I was shocked to note that 90% of the time I am chosen by a boy.

Therefore, it seems that unconsciously the boys know that I favour them, and gravitate towards me.

Reflection allows me to that I must be more conscious of this and ‘ensure that boys and girls get equal attention’ (MacNaughton, 2000:12).  

All materials and resources in the indoor and outdoor environment are available to all children.

Yet, any new activities devised by me, although used by both genders were generated with the boys in mind, for example, an outdoor construction area.

Upon observation, it is noted that the girls are inclined to stay at the workbench and use the materials, while the boys command the sandpit and the building around it.

However, as MacNaughton (2000:29) suggests I will now ‘create dialogue’ between myself and the children about the area, encourage the children to role-play scenarios to prompt discussion and to allow ‘the children to make sense of their…play choices’.

Listening in this way will allow me an insight into the thinking of all children and how ‘they are making sense of the world’ regardless of gender (Browne 2004:60).  

Awareness of gender equity is required when devising future activities. This issue must be continually explored at team meetings to allow us to ‘consider the barriers that…[our] own assumptions may create when trying to meet children’s needs’ (Hendry 2012:95). 

About the Author 


Jacinta Murphy is a senior tutor and programme lead of the BA (Ord) in Early Childhood Care and Education and lectures on our BA (Hons) Inclusive Education Practice. She explains her journey in early years below.

"I began working in early education in 1994, and to be honest, did not know what I was taking on, but the times of work fitted with my family! Little did I know that I would find my life’s passion. I was fascinated by these young people and the fact that the sector was unregulated and basically providers could do what they liked.

"I began to read on the subject and improve my practice and returned to education in 2000 to study the Montessori Method. Since then, I have not stopped learning, through study, working with children and families, and through my role as a manager/lead practitioner in rural, urban, affluent, and disadvantaged areas.  Most recently, I have completed my master's, a proud moment for me and my grown-up family!

"My experiences provide me with vast industry insight as I have experienced vast changes within our sector, frameworks, legislation, and others.  In a setting, each year brings a different group dynamic, therefore it is essential to have the ability to reflect upon and amend provisions and practices to meet the needs of children, families, and staff.  I hope that by bringing my practical experiences in the setting into my tutorials allows students to link theory and practice.

"In 2004, I became a tutor at Portobello Institute on a part-time basis. Currently, I work full-time for the Institute supporting full-time QQI Level 6 students in Child Development, Early Childhood Curriculum, Social, Legal and Health Studies and Personal and Professional Development. I am part of a vital, vibrant early childhood studies team. I lead the Level 7 Early Childhood Studies Degree and tutor on the modules such as Children’s Rights in Today’s World, Enquiry Based Learning and Communicating in Multilingual Contexts."

Want to Learn More?

If you are interested in learning more about gender equality and inclusion, it is explored in-depth on the BA (Ord) Early Childhood Studies degree, specifically the 'Challenging Inequalities in the Ealry Years' module.

You can see the upcoming start dates for our BA (Ord) in Early Childhood Studies and BA (Ord) in Inclusive Education Practice here.

Portobello Institute also offers a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Studies, BA (Hons) in Inclusive Education Practice, an MA in Early Childhood Studies and MA in Inclusive Education and SEN. 

View all of our Early Years and Montessori courses here.

If you are interested in finding out more about any Early Years courses at Portobello Institute you can reach out to our Early Years Admissions Advisor, Jennifer Matteazzi, who will answer any questions you may have. You can book a 15-minute free consultation call with Jennifer at a time that suits you here. Or you can email jennifer.matteazzi@portobelloinstitute.com or call her directly on 01 892 0031.  


Bellinger, D. and Gleason, Jean Berko. (1982). Sex differences in parental directives to young children. Journal of Sex Roles, 8:11, pg. 23–1139.  

Browne, N.  (2004). Gender Equity in the Early Years. Maidenhead: OU Press. 

Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA), (2016). Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines for Early Childhood Care and Education. Dublin: Government Publications 

Hendry, H. (2012). ‘Diversity in the early years’. In: Beckley, P. Learning in early Childhood: A Whole Child Approach from Birth to 8. London: Sage 

Holland, P. (2003). We don’t play with guns here: War, weapon and superhero play in the early years. Maidenhead: OU Press 

Lancaster, Y.P. (2010). Contemporary Issues in the Early Years. London: Sage. 

Mac Naughton, G. (2003). Shaping Early Childhood: Learners, Curriculum and Contexts. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Mac 

MacNaughton, G. (2000). Rethinking Gender in Early Childhood Education. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.  

O'Toole, J. (2000). Early Childhood Care and Education in Ireland and the Challenge to Educational Disadvantage, Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 7.  

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