SAINT-OUEN - At what age does gender inequality take root? As early as the crib, according to the staff at one nursery school in Saint-Ouen, in the northern suburbs of Paris. Bourdarias nursery school was the first pre-school establishment in France to adopt an anti-sexism policy, in 2009.
France's Minister for Women's Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and Dominique Bertinotti, minister for family policies, visited the nursery last Friday, aiming to put its pioneering work into practice across France. Only one other nursery in the region follows a similar policy.
"We will never achieve gender equality if we don't break down stereotypes from a very young age," declared Vallaud-Belkacem.
"Our goal is to give children the fundamental skills that they will need growing up," explains the nursery's head-teacher, Haude Constantin-Bienaimé. "Yet, we've observed that from a very young age, girls and boys do not have the same self-confidence." For instance, when the children watched a video that featured a ghost, the girls gathered around the adults and said that they were scared, whereas the boys rushed the screen, trying to hit the ghost.
Children learn through imitation
Natural behavior? Not exactly. "The child learns through imitation; the influence of adults is important," analyzes Mrs. Constantin-Bienaimé. "We are training our children according to our own ideas and according to what society expects of each gender. Little girls have to be sweet and kind, little boys have to be brave." Parents are not the only ones responsible. Teachers, the media, children's books, and the baby-care and toy industries all bombard kids with stereotypes.
Visually, the nursery looks like any other. There are the usual toys. The nursery school's "active equality education" tries not to lock children into presupposed roles -- pink tea sets for girls, blue trucks for boys. However it does not deny the differences between the two sexes. "We try to have toys which are as neutral as possible, but without completely banning dolls and garages," explains David Helbecque, a pre-school teacher. "We simply teach girls that they too can play with toy cars, make noise, yell and climb. Boys who want to play with dolls are encouraged too."
"The point of this type of education is to allow each individual to widen their possibilities," says Geneviève Cresson, professor of sociology at the University of Lille I and a specialist in infancy and social differences between sexes. "Sexism diminishes girls' chances, but is also harmful for boys, as they are taught that aggressive behavior and bottling up emotions are normal." Play kitchens and DIY tools are offered to both sexes.
Girls are pretty and boys are strong
The anti-sexism policy is applied to every aspect of the preschool: the children’s activities, the relationship between adults and children, and even everyday words. "Girls are often described as pretty, whilst boys are described as strong. This is a classic example of stereotyping," says Mrs. Constantin-Bienaimé. The staff received training from professionals from Sweden, a country that is incredibly advanced in these issues. "Adults have to make an effort themselves to take into account their own unequal treatment of girls and boys," says Cresson.
In Seine-Saint-Denis, where the nursery is based, and where there are 55 other nurseries, the municipal government has helped develop this initiative. "The nursery is now part of a wider program," explains Stéphane Troussel, the region’s president. "We also have a program to combat sexism in secondary schools and an observatory for violence against women."
The nursery's task also requires the cooperation of the parents. In this suburb outside of Paris, a mixture of young professionals and social housing projects, the work of the nursery has been warmly received. Some people are even moving to Saint-Ouen because of the nursery, and with only 45 places, it is being besieged by applicants.
Professionals are convinced this sort of idea promotes respect between the two sexes, and can even reduce violence committed against women. However, it should be generalized and be continued throughout the education system, which is not the case at the present.