How to Manage Gender Stereotypes in the Classroom

Tackling gender stereotypes is essential to creating an inclusive learning environment. When students associate themselves and others with gender stereotypes, they risk experiencing low self-esteem and a limited perspective.

Many schools are hosts to gender stereotypes. The stereotypical boy is hyper-masculine, while the stereotypical girl experiences low self-esteem. During recess, boys can often be found fighting over a sports game, or bullying those who don’t fit the traditional gender stereotypes we see on TV. Likewise, girls may feel pressure to be perfect or to excel academically, or they may feel unsafe at school due to boys’ angry outbursts.

But we can change this behavior. With the right tools and understanding, we can promote students’ healthy and happy lifestyles.

Where do Gender Stereotypes come from?

Gender stereotypes are often picked up at an early age. The popular gender-reveal party draws attention to the child’s gender even before the child is born. The more we focus on a child’s gender, the narrower the child’s path will be growing up. One experiment by the BBC involved a volunteer showing various toys to a baby. The twist was that the ‘boy’ baby was dressed in pink, so the volunteer mistook him for a girl, offering him dolls and fluffy toys to play with. Then when the girl baby dressed as a boy came into the room, the volunteer gave the baby a robot and cars to play with. Evidently, gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our culture.

The Effects of Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes influence social norms, to the point where men or women feel they don’t belong in certain gendered professions. STEM careers, for example, are dominated by men, while lower paying jobs are traditionally held by women.

At school, boys and girls are continually policing each other to stay on their assigned paths. If a girl comes to school with an action toy, or a boy with a doll, they are sure to face criticism. The documentary, ‘The Mask You Live In’ explains how boys ages 15 to 19 learn to hide their emotions and are thus five times more likely to commit suicide than girls. The male stereotype is to be strong, not to care, not to show emotions. If we lead boys down this path, they are likely to encounter disaster.

For girls, the pressure to be ‘pretty’ is enormous. Studies have shown that greater exposure to mainstream media content placed appearance and physical attractiveness at the center of a girl’s value. Besides the pressure of being thin, girls also reported feeling pressure to be kind, caring, to please everyone, to speak softly, and not to cause any trouble. Of course, this cannot be sustained and unfortunate side effects include eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.

The Teacher’s Role in Tackling Gender Stereotypes

The National Education Union of the UK found that a quarter of all secondary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping and discrimination in their school on a daily basis, and a further 26% say they witness it on a weekly basis. This clearly shows that students don’t understand the damage their comments can make. Why? Because they haven’t been taught why gender stereotypes are so damaging.

One study by Liben and Bigler showed the effects a teacher can have on gender roles. The experiment examined two separate classes, one class with a focus on gender, meaning the teacher would say good morning boys and girls or have bulletin posters for boys and girls, while the other teacher made no mention of gender. After two weeks, the class with a focus on gender saw much less play with the other sex and more highly stereotypical views on the other gender when compared to the class with no focus on gender. We can conclude that when there is a focus on gender in the classroom, the result may be increased gender segregation.

How to Tackle Gender Stereotypes

As teachers, we can encourage our students to think critically about their behavior and to change their outlook on topics related to gender.

We as teachers can make an impact on our students’ beliefs and behaviors. In order to facilitate discussions on topics of gender, we must understand 4 key issues:

  1. Various ways in which students are influenced by gender stereotypes.
  2. How gender stereotypes can impact students’ schooling.
  3. How we as teachers can help shape a student’s sense of self-worth.
  4. How to tackle these issues head-on through education.

By confronting gender stereotypes intentionally, we can create an inclusive classroom environment where students feel a sense of belonging and respect for one another.

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