He ‘possesses strong leadership qualities’ but she's a ‘bossy, manipulative drama queen’...?

Young people constantly hear that girls are more social and less physical, that they’re princesses, boy-crazy, sexual temptresses, or pure and virginal. At the same time they’re told that boys are physically more active, but socially and verbally less mature, that they’re emotionally stunted, slaves to their sex-drives and that ‘boys will be boys’.

When someone falls outside these stereotypes or exhibit traits traditionally associated with the opposite sex, 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’. Stereotypes like these inevitably shape the way boys and girls view their place in the world.

Being a young man or woman means different things to different people, and trying to live up to society’s assumptions can lead people down unhealthy and disrespectful paths – from limiting their own aspirations, putting sexual pressure on themselves or others, to victim-blaming and going on to promote outdated myths and practices themselves. Read our Gender versus sex: Expectations, myths and models article to understand some of the more serious impacts of gender stereotypes.

It’s important to understand that what students learn about gender, and the roles they feel men and women can and should fill has a huge influence on how they grow to see themselves and others in the world. As educators, you have an opportunity to raise awareness of gender inequity and broaden young people’s visions of possible futures for themselves.

There are plenty of situations where young people are likely to reinforce gender stereotypes themselves. Sometimes young people make remarks ‘off the cuff’ because they’ve been exposed to them before but have never been prompted to think further about their meanings and consequences. As teachers you can invite students to start thinking critically about stereotypes and rigid gender roles.

Highlighting positive role models can also inspire kids to dispute gender stereotypes. Using examples of female doctors, soldiers or sports-people, talk about what challenges they might have faced to get where they are. Look at the experiences of previous generations and discussing stereotypes that were once considered ‘truths’, but have since been exploded to build a fairer and safer society.

Stereotype examples – Let’s talk about…

Ask students to talk about how these commonly made statements make half our population feel about themselves, and how they affect the other half’s respect for women?

  • “He’s such a girl” – Whether it’s about physical activities or general behaviour, ask students if they can see how this not only suggests there are things boys shouldn’t do because of their gender, but also tells females nothing they do will ever be as ‘good’ as what boys do.
  • “She’s so hot/sexy” – This may seem like a compliment, but ask students why this is important. How is it relevant to what someone does or who they are? Are there other aspects to this person that are more worthwhile than the way they look? Point out that basing your idea of people on how ‘hot/sexy’ they are limits who you have respect for and your understanding of people generally.
  • “She’s a slut/frigid” – Ask students why someone’s sex-life should be anyone else’s business. Why would we give anyone such an offensive label based on what someone else has said about something so private?
  • “Women/men are all…” – …all what? There’s not a lot that can truthfully follow this sentence. Ask kids if they can see how making these assumptions limits their understanding and limits other’s understanding of themselves. Although generalisations can seem like an easy way to understand the world, they’re generally ‘lazy’ in that they rely on stereotypes – not facts.

Use examples of sexism or rigid gender roles currently in the media, news stories, advertising, television or film as prompts for discussion. Ask students for their own experiences with gender stereotypes, and give them our articles on gender for young people to initiate further discussion.

For more information read our other articles on gender and stereotypes for teachers and educators. For lesson plan ideas and information on gender and respectful relationships please refer to Unit One: Gender, Respect and Relationships of the Building Respectful Relationships, Stepping Out Against Gender Based Violence resource from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.