Gender stereotypes and cultural norms are the hardest to tackle when it comes to sustaining the impact of development interventions in China. In fact, project leaders have reported that even though women have benefited from social and economic empowerment, traditional gender stereotypes persist. For instance, the imbalanced sex ratio in China shows the mentality of preference for boys in sex selection before birth. But when do such preferences and gender stereotypes emerge? Studies suggest very early in childhood. For example, recent research has found that six-year-old girls tend to believe that boys are smarter than girls are. However, a gender perspective in early childhood education has been largely overlooked in education systems globally, including China, in its efforts to improve the quality of education for girls and boys.
A Gender Profile of Basic Education in China
Since the 1980s, China has approached education as a means of ensuring social equity and harmonious development of the nation. As such, government policies clearly stated girls’ right to education, and included the evaluation of girls’ enrollment for primary and lower secondary school education in accountability systems. Preferential policies and initiatives of civil societies, such as providing funding for girls’ education and skills training have targeted the unreached girls from poor, rural, migrant, and ethnic minority families. With the decrease of the school-aged population and the number of children per family due to the family planning and one-child policy, more social and family resources have been allocated to support girls’ development. Hence, the focus on girls’ education created an opportunity for China to integrate a gender perspective into national education policies, increase engagement by local organizations, and reform beyond the education sector. Together, this enabled China to achieve gender parity in education.
In recent years, the priority for girls’ education in China has shifted from access and parity to empowerment for sustainable development. This transformation is consistent with the framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, now that access issues are less acute for girls, gender issues in educational processes and outcomes have become almost invisible. There is little known as to what girls and boys are experiencing in school, particularly in early education settings, even though most Chinese children spend the whole day in school starting at age three. Moreover, in contrast to the initiatives for compulsory education, there has been a lack of gender perspective in early childhood education in terms of planning, accountability, resource allocation, and the quality of teaching for girls and boys. How can quality education be achieved without a gender perspective? How can gender issues at primary, secondary, tertiary levels and beyond be tackled without paying attention to the interventions in the early years?
Changing Stereotypes in the Early Years
As an Echidna Scholar, I intend to address these questions by exploring possible pathways to integrate a gender perspective into early childhood education teacher policy in China. This study comes at an exciting moment for education policy in China, as the government has recently increased its investment and planning in early childhood education as well as teacher quality and professionalism. This makes for a terrific opportunity to re-examine and inform policy.
Indeed, we should not underestimate the importance of early childhood education and socialization on the development of deeply ingrained gender norms. Studies based on teacher-child interactions and peer activities in kindergarten in Norway and Hong Kong found that kindergarten teachers convey traditional gender values through the repeated use of gendered routines, and both teacher and children’s behaviors reflected gender stereotypes.
In China, the education system needs opportunities for pre- and in-service teachers to reflect on gender-related attitudes, perceptions and expectations of children, and to use diversified teaching and assessment in practice. As interventions in the early years have long-lasting effects, it is critical for the education system to tackle gender stereotypes early on, instead of reproducing them, thereby keeping girls’ development within the status quo.
Evidence suggests that pre-service and in-service gender sensitive teacher training has been effective in enhancing gender equity and equality in schooling. In the past decade, Nordic countries have put gender equality early childhood policy into practice in education systems. Case studies of gender-responsive teaching models in several countries in Africa have found that changes in teachers’ attitudes and practices, particularly teachers’ encouragement, helped girls enhance their self-esteem. It is important for teachers to be aware of the visible and invisible stereotypes that exist in education contexts and processes.
Girls’ and boys’ achievements are strongly associated with the success of the other. A gender approach brings awareness to the developmental characteristics of both boys and girls, and benefits households, communities, national development, and social equity. I believe that the key objective lies in making the value and power of education transform the lives and futures of both girls and boys in China.