Gender Socialisation in Schools

Barrie Thorne used observations in two primary schools and theorised that children played an active role in constructing their own gender identities.

Children play an active role in ‘doing gender’ and constructing their own gender identities. Differences in gender identity are developed dynamically as children interacted with several other children and adults throughout their childhoods.

There are not simply two sets of male and female gender roles or identities, there is a much more complex variation: not all boys respond in the same way in the same situations, and neither do girls.

However, despite their active role in the process, children still tend to adopt existing gender roles and thus reproduce gender inequalities.

The material below summarises the work of Barrie Thorne, primarily her 1993 book Gender Play. Thorne was a feminist researcher who developed her interest following her experience of attempting to bring up her own children in a gender neutral way, which didn’t quite work out.

Feminist theory applied to gender socialisation

Thorne argued that gender is not just something we passively receive through socialisation, rather gender is something that we actively do in our day to day activities. There are thus multiple different ways of interpreting and expressing masculinity and femininity, and the construction of gender identities is fluid.

This theory of the development of gender identity broadly draws on Ervin Goffman’s work on the presentation of the self in everyday life.

She discusses her theory in the context of wider power relations, particularly those of men, but believes there is no fixed patriarchal structure and emphasised that groups of women can have different interests to others and follows the theory of postmodern and difference feminism.

School organisation and gender relations

Thorne found that some primary school classes were organised by teachers into boys only and girls only tables, but even in those classes where pupils were given freedom of choice, boys tended to sit with boys and girls with girls. So in terms of the organisation of the classroom it was either teachers or pupils who chose to reinforce gender segregation.

Some teachers, but not all, further reinforced gender differences by organising teams for games into boys and girls or having boys and girls lunch queues, and such situations could lead to antagonism or rivalry between the two genders.

However at other times children would work in mixed gender groups and generally got on with it and worked co-operatively when gender was not brought to the fore and made an issue out of.

Peer groups and gender socialisation

At play time children had much more freedom of choice over who they could hang out and interact with and children chose to organise themselves in a gender segregated way.

Friendship groups tended to be either all male or all female and you could visibly see in playgrounds that there were distinct boys and girls games, with boys being in one area and girls another.

Boys tended to take up most of the space in the playground, playing football and baseball while girls tended to play closer to the school buildings and play games such as skipping and hopscotch. Boys also actively excluded girls who wanted to play football and vice versa with girls who wouldn’t allow boys to join in with skipping.


Thorne developed the concept of borderwork to describe the active process of marking out the boundaries between male and female social groups.

One form of borderwork was ‘cross-border chasing’ the most well known form of which was ‘kiss chase’, ‘a ritualised form of provocation‘.

Girls chased boys and tried to kiss them, sometimes wearing lipstick so as to leave a visible mark on their ‘victims’, and boys tried to avoid being kissed to escape the embarrassment. Boys who were caught were teased by other boys complained about getting ‘cooties’, or germs from the girls who kissed them.

The lowest status girls were given the term ‘cootie queen’ to signify that spending too much time chasing boys (and thus being in boys’ territory) was not a good thing, not something that girls should be doing, other than occassionally to annoy boys.

A second form or borderwork was more deliberate cross-gender interrupting of activities, such as boys deliberately stepping on girls skipping ropes to annoy them.

Borderwork served to dramatise the difference between boys and girls, exaggerated the differences between them and reinforced the idea that the two were opposits.

Borderwork also tended to reinforce male power with boys being much more likely to use physical power to disrupt girls games and girls having to chase them off.

Why gender segregation?

Thorn argued that there was no one reason why boys and girls separated themselves along gender lines in school, socialisation alone certainly wasn’t enough to explain the obvious gender segregation, but she highlighted the following:

School playgrounds are crowded environments in which it easy for groups to police behaviour. Because of the relatively high population density it makes it easy for boys and girls to call-out those who don’t conform to their expected gender identities, and, following Foucault, it also means boys and girls are more likely to police their own gendered behaviour because they know they are under constant surveillance by their peers.

Some games in school involved public choosing, and under such circumstances boys tended to select boys and girls to select girls, reinforcing gender segregation. However with handball students tended to just line up behind the team leaders and here there was less gender separation.

Thorne noted that were adults were not present pupils tended to police behaviour along gendered lines more vigorously, but when adults were present, they were more likely to encourage gender mixing.

However some teachers could also reinforce gender segregation by warning boys off going into girls areas in the playground for fear that they might cause disruption.

Overlap between genders

There were plenty of activities in which traditional gender norms were challenged in the school, and there was not a straightforward duality of distinct male and female cultures.

Some games, such as handball, were gender-mixed and there were cases of ‘braver’ boys and girls crossing traditional gender lines to play games, with some boys playing skipping and some girls playing football, for example.

It was especially the more popular boys who could get away with playing girls games without being teased and the stronger girls who could get away with playing boys games and developing a ‘tomboy’ identity.


Thorne’s study challenges simplistic dualism behind early Feminist conceptions of dualistic gender norms, divided simply into masculinity and femininity.

Her concept of ‘doing gender’ reminds us that passive notions of socialisation are not sufficient to explain the very active and animated process through which the taking on of gender roles.

Her in-depth ethnography allows us to trace the subtle differences in interpretations and interactions through which gender identities are constructed.

On the downside she doesn’t really explore the role which structure plays in channelling pupils towards traditional gender identities, even though she makes such a big deal about how active the process of doing gender is.


This material is primarily relevant to the compulsory education module taught as part of first year AQA A-level sociology.

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Barrie Thorne (1993) Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School.

Playground image source.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Yummy Mummies – A Sociological Explanation

The yummy mummy is neoliberal sexualised, and anti-green.

Yummy Mummies may think they’re expressing their individuality, but they’re really just a product of our neoliberal society according to one recent piece of Analysis:

The rise of the ‘yummy mummy’: popular conservatism and the neoliberal maternal in contemporary British culture by Jo Littler

I’m not a huge fan of cultural studies, but I like this…. It’s helped me understand why I’m so intolerant of them, and maybe why I’m right to be.

What is the yummy mummy?

In short, she is a white, thirty something in a position of privilege, shoring up the boundaries against the other side of the social divide (so-called ‘pramfaces’).

The yummy mummy, as constructed through autobiographical celebrity guidebooks (see below for online versions) and ‘henlit’ novels espouses a girlish, high consuming maternal ideal as a site of hyper-individualised psychological ‘maturity’. ‘Successful’ maternal femininity in this context is often articulated by rejecting ‘environmentally-conscious’ behaviour – disavowing wider structures of social political and ecological dependency in order for its conservative fantasy of autonomous, individualising retreatism to be maintained.

Whilst the characteristics of the yummy mummy might appear as changeable as her clothing, most often the term is used to symbolise a type of mother who is sexually attractive and well groomed, and who knows the importance of spending time on herself. She is, according to Liz Fraser’s book ‘The Yummy Mummy’s Survival Guide’ (2006) ‘the ultimate modern woman: someone who does not identify with the traditional, dowdy image of motherhood… who knows her Gap from her Gucci’.

Yummy Mummy Claudia Schiffer – ‘More Gucci than Gap’?

There are various blogs and websites maintained by women ready to embrace the term, and is frequently used to describe glamorous celebrity mothers – books by Myleen Klass and Melanie Sykes are two well known examples in the UK.

Yummy mummys tend to think of themselves as exemplary successful individuals who are making the most of their lives and through their high-consumption lifestyles they demonstrate to the rest of us that it is possible to ‘have it all’ – the children, the job and the looks. Truly, they are (in their heads) the ultimate modern women.

In her head she’s the ultimate ‘modern woman’

However, just as with the yuppie, or the new man, the emergence of the yummy mummy can also be read as indicative of an underlying social crisis, in which case her emergence can tell us about how ideas of femininity and parenting are changing and about the times in which we are living….


Most obviously the yummy mummy positions the mother as a sexually desirable being. This is a substantial cultural shift – previously, mothers had been perceived as asexual.

For generations, patriarchal norms had typically constructed women as either Madonnas or Prostitutes – either asexual Sacred Virgins or sexual beings deserving of brutalisation (hence witches being burnt at the stake) – It was precisely this myth of the asexual female which second wave Feminists such as Germaine Greer, Ann Oakly and Kate Millet criticised, (although little was said by any of them about the constructed asexuality of mothers in particular).

A brief history of motherhood in western cultures looks something life this (from Woodward 1997)

  • The 1950s domestic goddess – groomed yet chaste
  • The 1970s oppressed housewife – made-up and miserable
  • The 1980s working mother – powerful and be-suited

Given this history, the yummy mummy’s positioning as desirable and sexually active might be regarded as emancipatory because now mothers themselves are encouraged to look hot, however, there are other ways of interpreting the yummy mummy – as outlined below…

Expressing a very limited (traditional) femininity and sexuality

Littler points to three limitations with the yummy mummy’s sexuality

Firstly, certain aspects of performance come to be expected – mothers are not just allowed to express their sexuality but are expected to express a particular kind of sexuality. Treatments like facials, for example, are now advised as necessary and routine. As minor UK celebrity (I love this description) Melanie Sykes tells us….

‘Being a gorgeous mum just takes a bit of imagination and more planning than it did before, but you  really have no excuse for sinking into frumption and blaming it on parenthood’

It is harder to imagine a clearer expression that this of how the onus, no matter the extent of resources or income, is on a self-governing subject to regulate herself. Such urgings are part of a wider canvas of neoliberal responsibilising through self-fashioning. In this context the yummy-mummy is an aspirational figure, with the specifics of how to become her outlined in various guidebooks such as The Fabulous Mum’s Handbook.

Second, sexuality is delimited because the preferred model of femininity is ultra-feminine – well-groomed, wearing fashionable clothes and being very slim. In other words, this is the extension of a fashion and beauty complex to the post-pregnant body.

Even the ‘slummy mummy’ still aspires to the yumm-mummy, the former being a Bridget-Jones type of mother – Still accepting the ideal, but endearing through her failure to live up to it. Both types (according to Mcrobbie) share in common a rejection of Feminism.

Third, the yummy mummy is more of a desired than a desiring object, although unlike with the pornoised MILF, there is something eerily infantile about the yummy mummy construction – part of the identity involves a coming down to the level of the child and depoliticising yourself, suggesting you are incapable of dealing with political issues, rather all you can do is consume.

The yummy mummy as neoliberal agent

(a social class based analysis)

In the UK there are generally two routes to motherhood, and there is now a significant gulf between working class younger mothers who are demonised and middle class mothers in their 30s who are the ideal, and it is from this later type that the yummy mummy emerges.

The yummy-mummy is basically a high-consuming, stay at home mum drawn from the top 10% of society.  She does not think about the wider social context which affects all mothers, because she does not have to, and rather than doing politics she retreats from public life and and focuses on a very delimited range of concerns – deciding what consumer-oriented activities her and her child should engage in. The message of the yummy mummy is clear – you have the power to solve your own problems, and the solution to these problems is consume more – no need to get political.

The problem with this is that the very visible yummy mummy construction ignores completely the wider structural context of motherhood and parenting….

This context is that neoliberal policies have reduced support for working mothers make it very hard for most mothers to stay at home for any length of time outside a year’s paid maternity leave – Working conditions remain very inflexible and radically unfriendly to families. On top of this there is still an expectation that the mother will be the ‘foundation parent’ (NB recent changes to paternity leave may help change this). This makes it very hard for parents (and especially women) to combine work and social care in equitable and supportive fashion –

As a result the majority of mothers (say 90%) simply do not have the resources to be yummy mummys, only (say 10% do), and it is these 10% who get the air-time and get to publish books and tell the other 90% what they should be worrying about.

Thus in sociological terms the yummy mummy is a neoliberal agent whose function is to encourage individualisation and responsibilisation on the part of all mothers and to demonise mothers who are working class, in any way political and/ or do not subscribe to a traditionally feminine (infantalised) sexuality.

The yummy mummy is inherently anti-environmental

She is basically a pro-corporate consumer, and she has wider agency in encouraging and driving consumerism. In many contemporary novels, high end consumers are often contrasted against frugual-consumer mothers who are cast as freaks and social misfits.

It is not hard to see why the yummy-mummy is anti-environmental when you think that environmentalism is overtly political whereas the YM is high-consumption, individualistic and narcissistic.

In conclusion

This article has helped me understand my own high degree of irritation at yummy mummys and their brats disturbing my peace and quiet in coffee shops around Reigate. Before reading this I was somewhat concerned that I should find this so annoying.

Now, however, I realise that I haven’t just been being irritated by the mums their brats, it must have been my unarticulated subconscious telling me that these people are the shallow, selfish, narcissistic agents of neoliberalism.

In short, my peace in those coffee shops was being disturbed by the agents of everything that’s wrong with global politics, not to mention the reproduction of it at the level of the life-world.

Examples of ‘how to’ Yummy Mummy guides

The Yummy Mummy How to Guide

Gender Identity and Education

This post looks at how the experience of school can reinforce children’s gender identities.

Gender identity

Research on the development of gender identity has shown that children become keen to demonstrate their awareness and knowledge of gender at the age of five to six. Consequently, seven to eight year olds have a relatively well-established sense of gender identity. For children, being accepted as a ‘typical boy’ or a ‘typical girl’ tends to be important. School is an important arena in which one can act out one’s gender identity and affirm one’s masculinity or femininity and thus affirm one’s gender identity.

Sociological research shows that there is pressure in school to conform to traditional gender identities. If one is a boy, one is often expected to display aspects of traditional masculinity such as enjoying sport and being competitive; and if a male student displays traditionally feminine traits they are criticised. Similarly, girls who act masculine may be subject ridicule. This handout looks at ways in which traditional gender identities are reinforced in school

Male Peer Groups – reinforce the idea that working hard is unmasculine for boys

Mac an Ghail’s study of Parnell school (1994) found that Male peer groups put boys under pressure to not take school work seriously. There were differences across social classes

Working class boys – genuinely didn’t make an effort – part of being male for them meant being cool, and not caring about school work. For them ‘real boys don’t try hard at school’ and are more interested in dossing around (like the Lads Paul Willis studied in 1977). These boys referred to boys that wanted to do well as ‘dickhead achievers’ ‘queer’ or ‘gay’.

Middle class boys – Behind the scenes, many middle class boys would try hard to succeed but in public they projected an image of ‘effortless achievement’ – pretending they were weren’t really making any effort and being smug when they did well because of this.

In terms of identity then, not working hard is part of working class masculinity and being seen to not working hard is part of middle class masculinity

In Shaun’s story – Dianna Reay (2002) demonstrated how Shaun, an 11 year old white working class boy, struggled to redefine himself as a hard working pupil when he moved from primary to secondary school. In primary school, an important part of Shaun’s identity was being one of the toughest guys in school and being a good footballer. When he moved up to secondary school he saw this as an opportunity to redefine himself as a ‘good student’ but found this difficult because he still valued his relationship with his old friends and his identity as a tough guy and a good footballer.

Female peer groups reinforce ideas of traditional femininity

Louise Archer – Interviewed 89 young people, looking at the identities of young working class girls. She found that girls that didn’t conform to traditional gender identities (passive and submissive) were at a disadvantage because they came into conflict with the school. For most of the girls, constructing and performing a heterosexual, sexy feminine image was the most important thing to them. Each of the girls spent considerable money and time on their appearance, trying to look sexy and feminine which gave the girls a sense of power and status. The peer group policed this.

Archer also interview one Laddette – who felt as if the school had a grudge against her. Over one summer she transformed her identity to a classically feminine one and got on much better with staff at her new college as a result.

Carolyn Jackson argued that Laddishness amongst girls is on the increase – girls are increasingly loud, aggressive and drink excessively. She argued that the advantages of this behaviour are that this allows girls to seam carefree about education, reducing the risk of them losing face if they fail.

Verbal Abuse can reinforce traditional gender identities

Connell argues that verbal abuse is one way in which dominant gender and sexual identities are reinforced.

Paetcher (1996) argued that male pupils use terms such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ in a derogatory manner. Such labels are often given to students who are disinterested in or bad at sport or who prefer traditionally feminine subjects.

Sue Lees (1986) found that boys called girls ‘slags’ if they appeared to be sexually available and ‘drags’ if they didn’t, negatively labelling girls for being promiscuous or not. According to Lees this is one way in which male dominance starts to assert itself.

Teachers reinforce traditional gender identities

Research shows that teachers also play a part in reinforcing dominant definitions of gender identity. Chris Haywood (1996) found that male teachers told boys off for ‘behaving like girls’ and teased them when they gained lower marks in tests that girls. Teachers also tended to ignore boys verbal abuse of girls (calling them slags etc)

There is also some evidence that male teachers sometimes display a protective attitude towards female teachers, coming into their class to rescue them from disruptive pupils who display threatening behaviour

John Abraham’s research found that teachers idea of a ‘typical girl’ was of her being welll behaved and studios, whereas their ideas of ‘typical boys’ were of them being troublemakers – thus boys received more negative feedback than girls which could reinforce their notion of masculinity being associated with messing around in school.

Tutors and subject advisors

If male students want to do traditionally female subjects, tutors are more likely to question them critically asking them if they are really sure about their decision, meaning students are under more pressure to avoid those subjects that do not fall into their traditional ‘gender domains’

Gender identities can be different for different ethnic groups…

Sewell argues that African Caribbean males are more likely to form anti-school subcultures

Mac An Ghail agreed but argued that this was a response to institutional racism

Girls outperform boys in all ethnic groups at GCSE and are more likely to go to university than boys in all ethnic groups

But Bangladeshi and Pakistani girls are less likely to attend university than their male peers. Research suggests this is due to cultural pressure to stay close to home and get married


This post has primarily been written for A-level sociology students and this topic comes up in the compulsory education module, part of the gender and education sub-topic.

Related posts include:

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – External Factors 

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – In School Factors 

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