Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Teacher Understandings of and Commitment to Gender Equity in the Early Childhood Setting

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Teacher Understandings of and Commitment to Gender Equity in the Early Childhood Setting

Article excerpt

Introduction

For some time, gender has been a focus of early childhood research, and a concern for those involved in early childhood education. Despite the rhetoric about the impact of equity programs on early childhood education, many practices and processes within the field and contemporary culture continue to promote and reproduce dominant gender discourses, thus limiting options for children (Cahill & Theilheimer, 1999; MacNaughton, 2000; Martin, 1998; Walkerdine, 2000). Our purpose in the study reported in this article was to canvass what four early childhood teachers understood about gender and how they use their knowledge of gender and gender equity to inform their pedagogic practice. We found that, although the participants mostly felt equipped to manage instances of gender inequity, they at times inadvertently reinforced dominant gender discourses; for example, through language use that implied the dichotomous nature of gender construction, the arrangement of play spaces, and 'rules' created in response to aggressive and noncompliant behaviours. We attributed this reinforcement, in part, to an over-reliance on socialisation theory to explain gender construction. By exploring how the teachers theorise gender, and their subsequent commitment to gender equity, we aim to heighten understandings of the diverse nature of gender construction, and offer recommendations for practice.

Methodology

The study employed a feminist qualitative research tradition (Harding, 1987). Four early childhood teachers participated in three semi-structured interviews, which were audiotaped and transcribed. Each participant was observed in her workplace three times over a nine-month period. Finally, each participated in a group discussion session that focused on their interpretations of and response to four case studies that depicted play-based scenarios involving domination and subjugation of certain children on the basis of gender. The data was analysed using thematic analysis techniques described by Ely, Vinz, Downing and Anzul (1997).

The four participants all taught in community-based long day care centres and held a university level early childhood specific qualification. They had varied levels of experience. Currently, they worked with children aged between three and five years and were the assistant directors within their centres. The teachers were aged between 24 and 35 years. All were of an Anglo-Australian background and none had children of her own.

Findings

Six main themes emerged from the data, which will each be discussed in turn.

Heavy reliance on socialisation theory

Within socialisation theory, the process of gender construction is said to occur from exposure to models in the child's environment from which the child gains an understanding of desirable ways to think, act and feel. Such models include parents, peers, media, siblings and other influences with whom the child comes into regular contact (Yelland & Grieshaber, 1998).

The teachers' understandings of gender were grounded in socialisation theory. They believed that gender is externally imposed on young children and that the process of gendering occurs from a very young age. They conceptualised gender construction in terms of exposure to a range of influences, specifically parents, the media, peers and teachers. The teachers consistently emphasised the primary role of social factors (family, toys, attitudes and clothing) in shaping gender construction, as the following excerpts from the data illustrate:

   ... social conditioning--families, you know, starting
   from very young--clothing that they're dressed in, toys,
   attitudes that is [sic] pushed on to them ...

   ... if your parents are breathing down your neck saying,
   'You're not allowed to play with a handbag because
   you're a boy and you're not allowed to play with a doll
   and you've got to play with this car or this truck'--I
   think that has a really big influence on the children. … 
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