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Clearly Defined Roles for Girls

How Kindergartens Serve as Gendergartens. The origins of gender inequality

Sociologists at HSE showed that preschool education has its own hidden curriculum: kindergarten teachers transmit social norms to children, including conservative ideas of femininity and masculinity. Girls are expected to have “proper” character and behavior, to be obedient and pretty, take an interest in music and dance, and to like the color pink.

“Doing gender” – that is, forming an understanding of masculinity and femininity – begins as early as kindergarten. School of Sociology Associate Professor Olga Savinskaya and Anastasia Cheredeeva found that this hidden but clearly gender-oriented curriculum permeates every aspect of a preschool child’s life: from games to showing an interest in certain professions. Femininity and masculinity form ‘narrowly, according to conventional stereotypes,’ researchers found. Girls ‘in the process of socialization are supposed to strive to be generally acceptable and to conform to the ideal.’ This implies attractiveness, courteousness, industriousness, and artistry. They should lean towards professions in which they care for people or animals and perform the princess, snowflake, or other glamorous roles in school plays. Parents generally favor such uniformity, even though it can interfere with girls’ development as individuals.

The study was based on interviews with mothers aged 27-40 and with mother-daughter dyads in which the children were 4-7 years old.

Life in a pink envelope

Gender socialization begins in childhood and in accordance with established social norms.

For children, a close connection exists between sexual identification and external factors such as clothing, behavioral norms, etc. Almost entirely antithetical qualities are attributed to preschool boys and girls, with the former often seen as coarse and pugnacious and the latter as sweet and kind. In clothing, the gender display begins with ascribing particular colors to boys vs. girls. Commonly accepted notions about what constitutes “appropriate” colors are transmitted to the children.

Even newborns are “ascribed gender-oriented attributes,” note Olga Savinskaya and Anastasia Cheredeeva. Even the form used to discharge baby girls from maternity hospitals is placed in a pink envelope. As preschoolers, girls are ‘taught to wear pink things because society dictates that this color is associated with the female image.’ One mother involved in the study confirms: ‘Pink is my daughter’s favorite color.”’

For boys – activity, for girls – docility

The education system and the family transmit social attitudes, guidelines and roles to children in equal measure. This is what U.S. sociologist Philip Jackson referred to as the ‘hidden curriculum’ in his monograph A Life in Classrooms. He saw in this phenomenon important aspects of the socialization of students that are not reflected in curriculum, but that “inevitably appear as it is implemented.” Among them are gender issues.

According to sociologist and girlhood researcher Professor Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova, ‘starting from preschool age, teachers encourage boys to express themselves and be active, and girls to be attentive, studious, and neat in appearance.’

Respondents related the same practices. According to one, educators teach that ‘a girl should always be clean and pretty and that boys should protect girls and watch out for them.’ In addition, parents often encourage girls to be meek and obedient. One mother boasted of her daughter: ‘She is a very well-behaved child and does everything she is told.’

Ladies play the piano

Educators and teachers generally agree that music, singing, and dance are obligatory elements of a “feminine” education.

Mothers often “assign” their daughters to artistic activities regardless of their actual interests. One mother expressed this attitude perfectly, saying: ‘We are very happy that she [the daughter] does not resist going to music lessons.<…> It seems that she doesn’t hate these activities.’ Without considering whether the girl is even interested in these classes, her parents have already determined her educational path: ‘Her father and I would very much like for her to become a professional musician.’

Such attitudes can limit the opportunities available to girls. The researchers see a danger in a person’s “biological sex” determining the activities in which they engage.

Girls on the left, boys on the right

The games preschoolers play also conform to gender stereotypes. Girls’ games vary within the “mother-daughter” model and boys only very rarely take part. Such games reinforce the usual notions of familial roles ‘concerning the duty of women to become mothers.’ However, this does not contradict girls’ attitudes because, as experts point out, many in their preschool years already ‘have a tendency to exhibit maternal attachments.’ Still, it is not always productive to make a strict division between “girls’” and “boys’” games.

Researchers note that the preschoolers they interviewed acknowledge a penchant for playing in different ways ‘in unstructured games in which they can make up their own rules, by testing what their toys can do and by creating new roles for them.’

Educators do sometimes teach boys and girls to play together, but this remains the exception. 

Self-realization through caring for others

Gender-based considerations play a role in which professions kindergarteners find interesting. ‘Girls aged 4-7 express interest in becoming veterinarians and teachers,’ report the study’s authors. ‘Data indicates that boys act out the more physical professions of fireman and driver.’

‘Role-playing mother-daughter games with peers as well as games with stuffed animals turn into educational practice for taking care of someone,’ the researchers commented. That is exactly what is expected of girls. At the same time, it would be wrong to conclude that girls can only fulfill their potential by taking care of others.


Study authors:
Olga Savinskaya, HSE Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences’ Department of Sociological Research Methods
Anastasia Cheredeeva, Master’s student, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences.
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, December 21, 2018