‘It’s all about democracy’: inside gender neutral schools in Sweden

These schools are helping young people explore ideas of gender as the concept becomes less and less rigid. Photograph: Södermalms Stadsdelsförvaltning

At five preschools in Stockholm, the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘girls will be girls’ is being challenged – with interesting results
You won’t find the typical allocated places for dressing up, building blocks, toy cars, and doll houses at five preschools in Stockholm. As part of a gender-neutral policy, all the toys are intentionally mixed together together.
The idea was first introduced in 1998 when a change to Sweden’s Education Act mandated that all schools combat gender stereotyping. Lotta Rajalin, the director of five public preschools for kids ages one to six, implemented gender-neutral regulations as a result. She established Egalia, which means equality in Latin, as a school that focuses on gender equality education, rejecting the notion that men and women are fundamentally different in terms of traits, needs, and preferences. Rajalin claims that democracy is the key. “We want to provide for all children equally.”

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Two “Emotion dolls” at the gender-neutral Egalia preschool in Sweden.


“We don’t say, ‘Come on boys, let’s go and play football,’ because there might be girls who want to play football,” says Frida Wikström, the schools’ coordinator. “We say ‘friends’ instead because it puts yourself on an equal level.”
The teachers let the kids to speak in any way they choose, but if one of them says, “You can’t play that; it’s a males’ game,” they utilize open-ended inquiries to explore the reasons behind the kid’s feelings. They substitute “hen” for “he” or “she” because they believe it avoids stereotyping. For instance, if a firefighter enters and we are unsure of their gender, we can refer to them as a “hen,” explains Wikström. We automatically think “he” because of the mental image we have of him. They also use “hen” in songs where they’ve noticed that more assertive or aggressive animals tend to be called “he” and sweeter ones “she”. “A bear is nearly always a he. Why is that? ” asks Wikström.
When Rajalin started out, she filmed teachers to see if how they treated boys and girls varied. “We discovered that there is a big difference,” says Wikström. “For example, we would take a lot more time to comfort girls. Boys were just told, ‘Off you go, you’re fine.’”

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“As teachers we have to educate everyone about difference, and not segregate,” says Elly Barnes founder of Educate & Celebrate. Photograph: Alamy


Creating guidelines was the following action. They consist of avoiding making assumptions about how various genders play. For instance, by mixing up the play spaces for dolls, dress-up, automobiles, and building blocks, more interaction between boys and girls is enabled.
“It’s had a really positive effect. Boys and girls play a lot more together. It’s very rare that you hear a boy say, ‘I only want to play with boys’. It’s important to us to really work on the idea that we’re friends and a group, not separated by gender.”

Not everything has been easy, but the most of the difficulties have been brought on by grownups. Changing staff members’ deeply ingrained attitudes around gender, according to Wikström, is difficult. We believe that we treat everyone equally, but we don’t, she claims. Asking staff to examine their behavior has also proven to be challenging because “changing behavior is quite difficult.” Although it’s not always nice to look at oneself critically, it is the first step.
The schools have a strategy of hiring staff members from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from a 50-year-old Iranian guy to a 20-year-old Swedish woman just out of university (they have a significantly larger percentage of male teachers than other schools, at roughly 40%). The staff members go through extensive training and discussions before agreeing on the rules.
Accepting the approach can be difficult for some parents, even though some parents specifically choose the schools because of their gender-neutral rules. Parents are shown a circle that has been divided in half, with gender stereotypes in each side, by the staff. “We ask parents, “Do you want your child to have a half-life or a full-life? Wikström says, “” “Everyone’s highest priority is their children. When they realize that it’s not about taking something away from the child, even fairly traditional parents understand.
According to Pippa Hodges, a child counselor at schools in north London, it’s critical to create environments where kids can be who they want to be. However, there can also be dangers in a gender-neutral setting. Children who strongly identify with one gender and are not supported in that decision run the risk of confusion and embarrassment at this developmental time, she warns.
The nursery school instructor in north London, Genevieve Passamonte, has some concerns as well: “Every decent nursery has equal opportunity and anti-bias measures. A young boy wearing a dress is totally acceptable, however It’s crucial that kids acquire proper linguistic skills.

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Studies reinforce the notion that language is essential for describing behavior, according to neuroscientist and director of the educational facility Science Gallery Daniel Glaser. Very small language modifications, he asserts, can have significant effects. Psycholinguistics, or the usage of various words, has a significant impact on how teachers behave.
Additionally, it will be essential for altering kids’ perspectives. Making an early intervention to equalize the genders is a smart idea if you believe that how youngsters perceive gender matters. When they get older, it will undoubtedly be too late, he continues.
With each new generation, preconceived notions about how each gender should behave loosen as well. According to Hodges, younger generations are much more receptive of the flux of gender and sexuality than older ones.
Rajalin describes her school’s approach as preparing children for this new world. “We must work against our traditional way of thinking,” she says. “The world that I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. The children are going to be adults in 15 or 20 years’ time. They are going to live in another sort of society. We have to prepare them for that.”


by: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter
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