How To #BreakTheBias At An Early Age – Forbes

Group Of Elementary School Pupils Listening To Female Teacher Read Story
Did you know that a three or four-year old child is already gender biased?
Several research studies have found that young children “exhibit gender stereotypes, racial prejudice and preference for their own race”. Danielle Perszyk, a psychologist at Northwestern University, and her colleagues also confirm that children begin to show bias from an early age. Not only do they absorb the stereotypes they see, but they also become “increasingly attuned to social category labels, social status, and the biases exhibited by family members.”
With the International Women’s Day theme this year of #BreakTheBias, I wanted to learn more about how young children learn gender bias and the methods we can use to help them unlearn the prejudice they’ve already absorbed. If this bias is challenged in preschool followed by ongoing support in curriculum and activities, perhaps we can reduce the damaging effect of gender bias for women and girls throughout their schooling, their lives, and careers.
I reached out to Jody LeVos, PhD and Chief Learning Officer of BEGiN, to understand more about how gender bias is manifested in young children, and based on what we know about how children learn, how to help them challenge their limiting beliefs.
Bonnie Marcus: How do children absorb gender bias? From what sources?
Jody LeVos: It’s from a variety of sources. Researchers are starting to tease out the sources in many cultural references, the shows that we watch, and the songs we’re exposed to. Many of those, unfortunately, reinforce gender bias. Even if it’s highly nuanced and very subtle, we know that with repeat exposure to very subtle things, those become quite imprinted on our minds.
Early childhood development is such a rich opportunity to turn that ship around. We know that the biggest return on investment is really in the first five years. Brain development is most rapid during that time period. Children are making a million neural connections a second.
The opposite is also true. When they’re such a sponge to this information, which is likely, we’re already seeing self-limiting beliefs at about age five, such as what some would call the dream gap, which describes a phenomenon where young girls, due to social constructions that women are less capable and valuable than men, are held back from living up to their full potential. I don’t think it’s necessarily coincidental that that’s at the end of the rapid brain development and an openness to so much information. Again, it’s a rich opportunity for us to provide super positive experiences for long-term impact.
Jody LeVos, PhD
Marcus: By the time they enter school, they need to unlearn their limiting beliefs?
LeVos: Right. We can and children can. That’s not doom and gloom. It’s not like if they develop gender bias, these kids are doomed. It is something that can be, with time and with the right role models, unlearned and unwound a little bit, but ideally, we give kids a really great start early on to help avoid gender bias to begin with.
Marcus: What are some ways to incorporate the gender bias in early childhood education?
LeVos: I think a couple of tips, generally speaking, to help avoid and eliminate gender bias, is modeling for your children and showing them examples of women in fields may be that kids aren’t expecting. This idea of if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Make sure we’re showing kids examples of women who are in different roles.
I’m a boy mom, I have two boys. It’s always been really important to me that as they’re selecting inventors or scientists or athletes to do reports on, to ensure that they’re researching women in those fields as well. I think showing them positive role models is one important tip.
Challenge gender stereotypes when you hear it. If your child starts talking about things like, « I’m not good at math » or « Coding is for boys. » Have a conversation, use that moment as an opportunity to ask them why they think that’s the case, and to really help them understand that that’s not the case.
Help limit the amount of exposure to some of the sources of gender bias. A great example is doing some research on content and using maybe a trusted third-party source like Common Sense Media, to review the types of shows your child is watching or the type of music they’re listening to. How are they portraying different gender or stereotypes?
Nurture social-emotional skills, generally, like helping children develop strong communication skills and confidence in themselves as learners and as important humans in their own right, is helpful for avoiding bias.
Another idea would be to expose them to inspiring women who’ve done things that are super exciting to show them the options that are out there.
Finally, support what’s called the growth mindset. Get your kids comfortable with failure, help them understand that effort is more important than outcome, to try to head off these self-limiting beliefs that something didn’t work or something was hard, and that means I’m not good at it. That’s not what it means. It means we have to keep trying.
Marcus: How can we use the information we have about how kids learn to build more awareness around gender bias?
LeVos: Children learn in multiple ways. We learn as humans through observation. We learn through experimentation and trial and error. We learn through direct instruction. People tell us something and so we learn. Knowing all of those things about how kids learn, I think, embedding pro gender messages into our content, and exposing children to as many really important early learning skills as we can, whether that’s coding, whether it’s creating a strong mathematical foundation for them, whether that’s introducing them to characters or people who have careers they’ve never thought of, particularly if those people are women. Through those methods and avenues, we can support, hopefully, reduce gender bias in our kids.
Bonnie Marcus, M.ED, is the author of Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence and Claim Workplace Power and The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead. An executive coach and speaker, Bonnie is also host of the podcast, Badass Women At Any Age.