While gender stereotypes don’t determine what women and men are capable of, they do heavily influence what people think women and men are capable of – particularly young people.
When we don’t live up to stereotypes, or exhibit traits outside traditional gender roles, negative labels are often used. For example, an assertive female might be labelled as a ‘bossy, manipulative drama queen’, while an assertive male is described as ‘possessing strong leadership qualities’.
Some gendered stereotypes include:
- Men and boys are aggressive, good at sport, ‘providers’ and strong leaders.
- Women and girls are nurturing, caring, home-makers, uncoordinated and weak.
When students see adults in their life, including teachers, modelling equitable and respectful behaviours, the messages they’re formally ‘taught’ about these things in the classroom are more likely to stay with them. As educators, you have an incredible opportunity to inspire young people to explore their potential without feeling confined or discouraged by damaging and outdated ideas of gender.
Identifying how gender stereotypes are reinforced in the classroom
As adults, our learned behaviours can reinforce stereotypes through our actions and language, even accidentally, such as rewarding passive and quiet behaviour in girls with statements such as “She’s so lady-like” or “Such a sweet girl.” Conversely, when a boy is disruptive, statements such as “That’s boys for you - they can’t help themselves”, can encourage these behaviours and attitudes.
It is also important to consider the resources and materials used in the classroom and identify examples in materials that reinforce gender stereotypes. Examining our use of gendered language, or reviewing examples used in teaching materials where men are the builders, engineers, scientists or lawyers, while females are represented undertaking tasks in the home, as carers, or in ‘artistic’ or administrative roles.
Again, examples of inequity within the classroom may not at first be obvious to you but they still have an impact on how boys and girls perceive what they are entitled to. Even teachers who assume they’re already gender equitable in their teaching methods are often surprised when they consciously track how often and what types of questions or tasks they call on boys versus girls to complete or give feedback on.
Are you reinforcing gender stereotypes in the classroom?
Looking through the statements below might highlight ways you can be inadvertently reinforcing gender stereotypes in the classroom.
- I tend to ask male students to answer certain questions (e.g. about sport or maths) and draw on females for other questions (about arts or needing a perspective on how someone may feel)
- I will comment on female students’ appearance, such as if they have a new haircut, but I am less likely to do this with male students
- I inadvertently justify behaviour based on gender, e.g. “boys will be boys” or “girls can be a bit bitchy” even if I don’t say this aloud to the students.
- I’m more likely to ask male students for help if I need something physical done (e.g. moving a table or carrying sports equipment)
- I treat female and male students differently when they misbehave (I am less surprised by boys misbehaving, and expect better behaviour from girls)
- I encourage boys to undertake more physical activities, sports, etc.
- I encourage girls to read, draw or other undertake ‘quieter’ activities
- I use different language when addressing male and female students, e.g. ‘mate’ or ‘buddy’ versus ‘missy’ or ‘young lady’.
- I congratulate male and female students for different things, e.g. sporting achievements for boys, and creative achievements or physical appearance for girls.
Read our other articles on gender for educators, and look through our articles on gender for young people for useful reading resources to give students. For more on these issues you may wish to take a look at the Building Respectful Relationships, Stepping Out Against Gender Based Violence resource.