Lifting Limits: Delivering gender equality through education


By Caren Gestetner, Chief Executive of Lifting Limits

When I left a legal career ten years ago to pursue my passion for gender equality, I could not have foreseen how rewarding it would be to work with primary schools to open up the possibilities young children can see for themselves and others, regardless of their sex or gender. Through a Masters in Gender Studies, work in primary schools and the experiences of my own children, I came to understand how the seeds for so many gender unequal outcomes seen later in life are sown in early childhood – and the role primary schools can unwittingly play. This is how I came to co-found Lifting Limits, a social enterprise with a mission to challenge gender stereotyping and promote gender equality, in and through education.

The limiting effects of gendered stereotyping

Gender stereotyping surrounds children from birth, permeating every aspect of their lives – through the books, toys and clothes they are given, the TV they watch and the games they play, the language they hear and praise they are given (‘pretty girl’; ‘strong boy’).  The cumulative impact of gender stereotypes is linked to a range of gender unequal outcomes, for children, for adults and across society.  For example:

  • At school, where girls take only 22% of Physics A level, boys account for three-quarters of permanent exclusions and 37% of girls at mixed schools experience sexual harassment in school.
  • In the workplace, where only 11% of registered nurses are male and less than 10% of engineering professionals are female, the gender pay gap remains at 14% for full time work and men are twice as likely to be turned down in a flexible working request.
  • In health and mental health outcomes, with men accounting for 75% of suicides and 1 in 4 women in the UK suffering domestic violence in her lifetime.

Early intervention

Gendered norms are fixed early.  By about the age of eight, children develop gendered ideas which shape the subjects they choose in school and the careers to which they aspire, as well as their sense of self, behaviours towards one another and ability to articulate their emotions. Many initiatives at secondary school, in the workplace and beyond struggle to undo gender norms which children have picked up and internalised from a young age.

That is why, at Lifting Limits, we work with primary schools, intervening early to head off the stereotypes before they can take hold. Our whole school, evidence-based, programme gives schools the training and resources they need to:

  • recognise and correct unintentional gender bias that can go unnoticed in the school environment, curriculum and routines; and
  • equip their pupils to identify and challenge gender stereotyping in the wider world.

Pilot findings

In November, we were delighted to share the results of a year-long pilot, testing in five London primary schools our whole school approach. Findings from the independent evaluation of the pilot show the effectiveness of the approach in disrupting the gendered norms which limit children’s behaviours, choices, aspirations and achievement.

Reaching over 270 staff and 1900 pupils, the evaluation evidences the demonstrable impact of the Lifting Limits programme in:

  • raising staff awareness of the harmful impact of gender stereotypes;
  • increasing staff confidence to challenge stereotyping;
  • increasing staff reflection on their own practice;
  • raising awareness and acceptance amongst children of a more diverse range of roles and possibilities for women and girls, men and boys;
  • increasing children’s confidence to challenge stereotyping and enhancing their critical thinking skills; and
  • embedding gender awareness in the school ethos and approach.

Interestingly, findings showed particular opportunities to intervene in the Early Years stage, with children aged 3-5 starting the pilot with the most gendered views and travelling the greatest distance in changing those views over the course of the pilot.  The report ‘We can all be who we want to be: A whole school approach to challenging gender stereotypes and promoting gender equality in primary schools’, alongside the full evaluation report, can be found here.

What’s next

The report makes specific recommendations to Government, Ofsted, the middle tier (including local authorities and multi-academy trusts) and teacher training providers to support schools in working to promote gender equality.  Alongside our work in schools we continue to encourage policy makers to bring about the policy climate in which this work can happen and stick.  We continue to work with individual schools in London, at the same time developing scaling of our model for wider roll-out, to help lift the limits gender stereotyping imposes on all children.

If you are interested in supporting our work, we would love to hear from you.

To learn more about Lifting Limits, visit their website.

About Caren:

Caren Gestetner left a career in law after 18 years to pursue her interest in gender studies, undertaking a masters in Gender, Policy and Inequalities at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Caren’s academic studies, dissertation focusing on gender in education and subsequent work in schools, combined with the primary school experiences of her own children, convinced her that many gender inequalities which manifest later in life have their roots in gender norms learned from a young age. Caren is committed in her work to addressing the ways in which these norms continue to be reinforced ‘below the radar’ in primary schools.

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