How Can You Promote Gender Equality In Your Classroom?
contributed by Jesse Johnson
As young children begin to notice the differences in social expectations for gender roles, the ways teachers interact with students stand to have a great impact on their ability to participate in their education.
These interactions also create long-lasting effects in other areas of their lives, at times limiting their self-image and their perception of the opportunities that are available or appropriate for them. This trend is especially apparent in the shortage of women working in STEM fields. The STEM Gap is real.
Here are a few ways some teachers create a gender bias, often unknowingly, as well as strategies for encouraging and also to promote gender equality within the classroom. Whether they are causes or effects, three factors of gender equity in the classroom.
3 Factors That Contribute To Gender Inequality In The Classroom
Contributing Factor #1: Teachers Pay More Attention to Boys
According to a report sponsored by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), girls receive significantly less attention from teachers than boys do (Bailey, 1992).
This is due in part to the fact that, in general, boys are more likely to call out answers to questions posed to the class even if they haven’t been called on by the teacher.
This trend may also exist because boys are often perceived as being more mischievous, causing teachers to monitor and engage with them more actively in class, giving a perceived ‘opening’ to speak without permission.
Over time, this can discourage female students from speaking up even when they feel like they have something worthwhile to contribute to a discussion.
Contributing Factor #2: Interactions with Boys are More Public
Teachers often have a tendency to talk to boys from a greater distance than girls. This is possibly due to an expectation that they should communicate in a more nurturing way with girls and a more business-like way with boys.
Because the entire classroom can often hear a teacher’s conversations with boys, this contributes to — at least the appearance of — teachers communicating more often and more casually with boys. This encourages girls to reserve their comments and questions for private conversations, denying them the chance to participate in primarily male-focused discussions.
Contributing Factor #3: Praise & Criticism Differ Between Boys & Girls
Though teachers aim to treat all students equally, there are often stark differences in the types of things boys and girls are praised or criticized for.
For example, boys are often praised more than girls for sharing correct knowledge, and wrong answers provided by boys are likely to be overlooked.
In contrast, girls are more often criticized for conveying incorrect knowledge, and teachers tend to provide less praise for correct answers given by girls. The lack of publicity in teachers’ conversations with girls makes knowledge provided by girls less visible. From this, an expectation arises that boys’ knowledge is more highly valued than that of girls, which can convince girls that they are less competent than boys.
Another difference comes in the fact that girls are more often praised for good behavior, whereas boys are criticized more for bad behavior in the classroom.
While this may seem like this difference would benefit female students, this trend actually places a greater emphasis on compliance as being essential to their academic success rather than simply learning and demonstrating knowledge.
6 Ways You Can Promote Gender Equality In Your Classroom
1. Be Reflective and Be Objective
First, pay attention to the trends above and do your best to offer more gender-neutral responses to students.
You may feel like you already do a good job of this, but it can be difficult to judge your own teaching objectively. It may help to record a video of your classroom in order to take a closer look at your own teaching methods and interactions with students.
Your language, norms, and underlying assumptions about gender–that girls learn one way or prefer one kind of instruction, book, grouping strategy, etc., for example–can promote gender inequality in the classroom in an invisible but ultimately divisive way.
2. Get Feedback From Colleagues and Students
Consider getting feedback from colleagues on any differences they may notice that you don’t. Further, consider getting similar feedback from the students themselves using an anonymous comment box.
Consider questions such as:
Which genders are recognized and supported in my classroom?
Do you feel welcome and equally supported in this classroom?
Do you notice any differences in how I treat different genders?
What do I need to know about you, in terms of gender, to teach you well? To support you personally?
Have I–or other students–made you feel good or bad in regard to your gender at any point? How can we do more of the former and less of the latter?
3. Use Gender-Neutral Language When Appropriate
You can also alter the language within your lessons to help expand students’ perspectives beyond gender stereotypes.
For example, in assignments, you can challenge students’ expectations by including a female construction worker or soldier, a male secretary or nurse, and other professions typically associated with a particular gender.
Also, when referring to the group as a whole, avoid using gendered terms like ‘guys,’ which may make female students feel excluded. Instead, reach for gender-neutral pronouns like ‘everyone.’
Similarly, you shouldn’t refer to stereotypical characteristics like ‘boys don’t cry’ or ‘girls don’t fight.’ This language lays a foundation that may limit students’ understanding of gender roles.
4. Explain the Context
If you hear students using phrases like ‘you play like a girl’ or ‘man up,’ it’s important to point out the social implications of these statements rather than simply admonishing the use of that kind of phrasing.
The struggle for and history of gender equity parallels similar struggles and histories for race and religious equity. Understanding how individuals and groups become marginalized through the most basic of cultural tools like language can, depending on the grade level of your students, is more important than having ‘clear rules’ to simply ‘protect students’ from bias.
5. Seat and Group Students Intentionally
It’s common for boys and girls to segregate when choosing friends and seating arrangements. Teachers sometimes encourage this by asking girls and boys to form separate lines in the hallway or even organizing separate sports activities for each group.
By creating a dynamic seating chart, you can break up boys- or girls-only cliques and encourage both groups to engage with each other.
6. Use Project-Based Learning
You can also be intentional about integrating a mix of boys and girls within small group projects. There are many types of project-based learning, each suited to different applications within and beyond the classroom.
The work can be purely academic, with the lessons on gender equity indirect and implicit. By working together, girls and boys can—if supported well—better understand the nuance of individual behaviors rather than stereotyping ‘girls’ and ‘boys.’
Projects can also be created to explore concepts in and around gender and cultural equity or to do work in select spaces and communities to nurture the growth of healthy human interdependence.
These trends aren’t true for every teacher or every group of students, but they are worth considering as you attempt to curb gender biases within your teaching methods. Gender disparity is only one facet of a much larger issue of equity within education.
However, by making efforts to break down traditional gender roles in the classroom, you can better prepare students to seek knowledge and participate more fully in discussions and other learning opportunities in many fields, regardless of their gender.