‘Gender equality is a human fight, not a female fight.’ - Frieda Pinto

Last month we looked at violence and how a collaborative effort in the early years can transform stereotypical attitudes and behaviour in boys, and help reduce violence against women and girls.  This month we look at how we can best support girls to become women of purpose and resolve.

A girl’s identity is informed by her genes, temperament, parents, home environment, friends, and the world around her. Early years providers have the opportunity to help girls become robust and confident individuals in their early years, impacting resilience for life. 

Social roles and norms are formed early and stick around for life unless challenged. ‘Boys will be boys,’ ‘Girls are sissies.’ Girls are often seen as ‘bossy’ or ‘interfering’ when displaying their confidence or assertion. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to be praised for being assertive. What a contradiction! 

In a recent meeting with several early years, primary and secondary teachers, the conversation turned towards girls’ confidence throughout school. It was every teacher’s experience that girls speak up less and ‘let the boys do the talking.’ In short, boys dominated. Even in a gender equality lesson, it was observed that the boys answered the questions or debated the point. The girls were silent. Why were girls less likely to speak out? The teachers’ collaborative view was that girls’ confidence gradually weakened as the girls got older, with a pronounced dip in secondary school. 

Building skills that counter violence

Young girls need to know that that they can thrive not only irrespective of, but because of their gender. 

Providers need to ensure that girls have a keen awareness that they are true equals in every aspect of their development. This begins with the skill of confidence. Confidence grows with support and flourishes when encouraged. It is vital that we start this process right at the start of a child’s life. 

Gauge the confidence levels of every girl in your setting. This is a crucial starting point, as the self-reliance that accompanies a strong sense of self is key to creating women who feel empowered.

Start the process by completing the confidence outcomes below for each girl. (1)

How did they do? Have you noticed a pattern? If each girl’s confidence levels are strong, keep doing what you are doing. If there are gaps, then follow the activities, and then re-assess the girls after a few weeks. 

Choice and voice 

Empowerment is the expansion of choice and the strengthening of voice through the transformation of power relations, so women and girls have more control over their lives and futures. (Eerdewijk et al 2017)

Girls’ habits and practices around choice and voice are key to their identity. For girls to be truly empowered, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

Does the provision:
  • Support girls in making choices and having control over their actions? 
  • Empower girls to act and realise aspirations right from the start, regardless of social norms, so that they have achievable hopes and desires? 
  • Encourage girls to express themselves? 
  • Encourage girls to negotiate? 

A new social norm

Social norms are subtle, insidious, and potentially toxic. They are the breeding ground for shaping rules about behaviour and habits that may well be harmful to both boys and girls. They potentially devalue the potential of girls across many areas of learning, particularly later on in school, where girls may perceive themselves as not ‘smart’ enough for science or maths choices.   

We need to embrace a mindset where we are keenly sensitive to all gender and social norms, ensuring that they never impact the learning of girls or the future potential of women. Awareness must be planted deep within the framework of what is taught and shared with our youngest citizens.  

Attitudes around girls or women being weak, or in need of protection, or striving harder to get ahead are myths based on the social and gender norms that have shaped our society for centuries. Such stereotypical assumptions based on ‘shared’ traits should have no place in our education system. 

Everyone is different. Everyone is diverse. Everyone is an individual. Our shared traits are to be celebrated, not conformed to. This is our new social norm! 


  •  Arc Pathway

About the author:

Helen is a mother of 4 and a committed and experienced early years consultant. She is Education Director at Arc Pathway, a sensitive profiling and next steps early years platform for teachers and parents. She has a wealth of experience in teaching, both in the primary sector and early years, co-founding and running her own pre-school in 2005. Helen has written books for the early years sector, including Developing Empathy in the Early Years” (winner of the Nursery World Awards Professional Book Category 2018) and Building a Resilient Workforce in the Early Years” (Early Years Alliance 2019). She regularly writes for early years publications such as Nursery World. 

Helen can be contacted via LinkedIn.

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