As conversations about gender equality become more common in daily life, educators are seeking ways to include these important discussions in the classroom.
No matter what grade you teach, facilitating equality and kindness toward people with different gender identities is important for students as they learn and grow alongside one another.
But what’s the safest, most appropriate way to approach such topics? Here’s what experts have to say about highlighting gender inequality and fostering a more understanding, inclusive classroom environment.
Note: Most of these ideas still apply even in remote learning situations.
Why Teach Students Gender Equality?
It’s normal to be hesitant about teaching young children gender equality. After all, aren’t elementary and middle school students too young to truly understand such complex topics?
Studies on gender bias show otherwise.
In fact, a 2017 study by Diane N. Ruble and colleagues found that concepts of gender (and the differences between them) form early, usually between ages 3 and 7 in most children. This is a crucial time, as it informs how young children see gender and the differences between male and female-identifying individuals.
Teachers play a role in helping students develop a fair and equitable understanding of gender during this developmental phase. For example, the ways in which teachers speak to male and female students plays a role in how girls and boys learn to view each other, say Sven Rooms and Martha Muhwezi at the Global Partnership for Education.
“Girls, for example, are more often praised by teachers for their clothing, appearance and caring behaviors,” Rooms and Muhwezi write. “Boys, on the contrary, are complimented for their physical strength, given more complex tasks in class, given more attention and experience more space to express themselves than girls.”
Professor Gina Rippon, a cognitive neuroimaging professor at Aston University, makes a similar point. She tells Study International that teachers play a role in reinforcing stereotypes with their praise, particularly through the use of typical phrases like “what a pretty girl” or “what a brave boy.”
A study by researchers Sule Alan, Seda Ertac and Ipek Mumcu in The Review of Economics and Statistics reinforces this idea, showing when teachers who consciously or unconsciously demonstrate traditional gender stereotypes toward young girls, the girls perform at a lower standard.
Fortunately, taking time to understand and confront your own (potentially unconscious) gender biases as a teacher will make you more well-equipped to help students see one another equally.
How to Talk About Gender Inequality in the Classroom
First and foremost, it’s important to introduce students to the concept of gender inequality in a way that feels approachable. Rather than making students feel blame or shame about instances of inequality, it’s important to phrase the discussion as a constructive problem that we all have an opportunity to help change.
For example, Dr. Pani Farvid at The Conversation says it’s important to approach each student “as a sophisticated individual who is capable of embodying and desiring several changing gendered identities.” By giving students the agency to act however they wish, regardless of gender, teachers empower them to break free of stereotypes and their limitations.
Another way to approach gender inequality in the classroom is to be mindful of the resources you use. Since some traditional texts adhere to gender stereotypes, it’s best to become skilled in identifying inequalities in educational materials. Phil Dierking at VOA English shares a checklist from UNESCO that teachers can use to evaluate their materials before using them in the classroom.
The checklist encourages teachers to ask some important questions:
- Are the educational materials or curriculum free from gender stereotypes?
- Do the educational materials show females and males in equal measure, and do they treat everyone with respect and potential?
- Do the materials reflect the needs and life experiences of both males and females while promoting peace and equality regardless of identity or background?
Recognizing Gender-Biased Teaching Materials
Instances of gender bias in educational resources doesn’t mean those resources can’t be used. In fact, teachers can highlight these inequalities and point them out to students during the lesson. This can help train students to be alert and aware of biases, which can appear anywhere.
One lighthearted way to teach about gender equality is through a card game that matches genders with professions, says Fatma Özdemir Uluç, who led a study on gender inequality in Turkish schools. Similar to the board game Snakes and Ladders, this game starts by giving each student positive or negative statements related to gender stereotyping. A positive example might be “everyone has a right to education,” while a negative one may read “male students are lazier.”
“The children either move forwards up the ladders or backwards down the snakes – depending on whether they agree or disagree with each statement,” says Uluç. The goal of this game is to help identify unfair or negative gender statements and reframe them in a positive light.
Let Students of All Gender Identities Learn Together
Another simple way to teach students gender equality is to position the room for collaborative learning. For example, you can be intentional about integrating a mix of boys and girls within small group projects. Whether you’re teaching about equality explicitly or doing a science project, it’s important to encourage students to collaborate and share ideas with one another.
“By working together, girls and boys can—if supported well—better understand the nuance of individual behaviors rather than stereotyping ‘girls’ and ‘boys’,” says the team at TeachThought.
They add that collaborative projects that explore concepts of equality and gender norms are especially important, as they foster discussion and understanding between students. When boys and girls learn about the experiences of another gender from a first-person perspective, they’re more likely to display compassion toward people of that gender identity.
Gender Equality Resources
When selecting resources for your gender inequality lessons, it’s important to find materials, textbooks and worksheets that are created with equality in mind.
Teaching Tolerance has a page of resources on inequality, for example. These lessons, designed for middle school and high school students, include texts and recordings that help students identify instances of gender bias. They’re also designed to help students make arguments, develop viewpoints and demonstrate findings on gender-based challenges that arise in the text.
Another resource for teachers is Participate Learning. Here, teachers will find myriad lesson ideas for students of all ages. Young students can benefit from the lesson “Exploring Gender Stereotypes in Stories,” also from Teaching Tolerance, which shows students how to identify and counter gender stereotypes in picture books. This lesson offers K–5 students an opportunity to practice spotting stereotypes and reframing them in a creative and uplifting way.
Another lesson for older students is titled “The Importance of Female Voices.” This lesson looks at Wikipedia contributions to spot instances of gender inequality on the website. For this lesson, “students create their own class wiki in order to discover why, despite Wikipedia’s policy of openness, girls and women comprise only 13 percent of Wikipedia contributors,” says the team at Participate Learning.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is another helpful resource for teachers wanting to share gender equality lessons with students. This organization was founded to highlight gender imbalances in the media and use these examples as a vehicle for driving change, challenging stereotypes and providing better role models for children. This website offers a number of lesson plans that teachers can use to help students explore topics such as gender bias in the media, self-image and the normalization of harassment.
Because media influence how students understand and perceive gender, talking about bias in the media can prevent students from following the stereotypes they perpetuate. Teaching students how to identify and foster gender equality early on in life is an essential measure for creating a more just and tolerant future.