As young children begin to take notice of gender equality and the differences in social expectations for gender roles, the ways in which their teachers interact with them become more weighted. 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 who pursue education and careers within STEM fields.
There are many different ways in which teachers can unknowingly create a gender bias in their classroom. One of these is paying more attention to the boys than the girls. This may be due 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. Over time, this can discourage female students from speaking up even when they feel like they have something worthwhile to contribute to a discussion.
Though teachers aim to treat all students equally, there are also 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. This 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.
So how can you prevent this? Here are some strategies for encouraging and promoting gender equality within the classroom.
Be reflective and objective. 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 speech objectively.
Get feedback from colleagues and students. Further, consider getting similar feedback about gender equality from the students themselves using an anonymous comment box. Such questions as ‘Do you notice any differences in how I treat boys and girls?,’ ‘Have I made you feel good or bad in regards to your gender at any point?,’ or ‘What do I need to know about you, in terms of gender, to teach you well?’ could be helpful.
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.
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 on gender equality, rather than simply admonishing the use of that kind of phrasing.
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.
These trends aren’t true for every teacher or every group of students, but they are worth considering as you attempt to promote gender equality within your teaching methods. Gender equality 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.
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