Gender bias at school: where to find it and how to combat it

Teach Starter’s Emma Stuart, digital content producer and teacher of 7 years, discusses evidence of gender inequality at school and how International Women's Day provides an opportunity to encourage teachers and students to work on erasing imbalances to empower girls at a classroom-level and beyond.

By Emma Stuart

Through their lessons and conduct in the classroom, teachers have the power to influence how children behave and perceive the world around them. This privileged role in society is one that should be taken seriously.

But, despite how progressive a teacher’s mindset when it comes to gender equality, schools and teachers may be unintentionally perpetuating bias without realising it. As teachers are becoming more aware of their role in engineering change through explicitly educating students on gender equality, it’s also important that they are mindful of finding and fighting gender inequality in other aspects of school life.

Gender bias in the classroom

Lessons on gender equality are integral to a well-rounded classroom curriculum and are most effective when taught from a young age. Your students need to understand what gender bias is – the choosing or preference of one gender over another – and to see that gender inequality, or gender bias towards males, is a problem in our society and that it needs to be corrected.

However, just making students aware of bias is not enough. Students need to understand how to put these lessons into practice. They need to see that people want to actively conquer inequality, and that there are benefits to doing so.

Teachers should role model how to recognise and positively correct biased behaviour when they see it. Role modelling positive behaviour in your choice of language and expectations is the first step to promoting equality. Changing language to be neutral (for example, there are no ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ colours), and explicitly challenging stereotypical and biased behaviour in your students is a great place to start.

As part of this role modelling, teachers also need to demonstrate how to look inwardly, and question their own unintentional stereotyping and bias. Remarkably, most teachers are not aware of the role they play in gender inequality in their classrooms until they take the time to consider their own behaviour.

I ask you to consider this. When was the last time you considered the ratio of boys to girls participating in class discussions? Or how frequently you call on girls versus boys to answer questions? What about the amount of time you spend praising boys versus girls on their confidence and opinions? How often do you call girls up to the front of the classroom to demonstrate math or science work?

When pushing yourself to be the best role model you can be, you could also consider:

  • providing more opportunity for girls to take leadership roles in group activities (rather than as designated ‘note takers’)
  • encouraging girls to express their opinions and thoughts with confidence
  • pointing out underrepresentation of females in textbooks and other resource materials as you come across them in your lessons
  • discussing outdated gender roles in children’s stories, or the over-representation of male protagonists in novels
  • having the same expectations for student outcomes for girls and boys, despite the learning area (math versus English for example)
  • providing the same amount of feedback, one-on-one time, and praise and encouragement to each student.

IWD women

Gender stereotyping outside of the classroom

When you’re in the domain of your own classroom, it’s much simpler to encourage and inspire equality between the sexes. Once you venture outside the classroom, it gets trickier.

Encourage your students to take their ideas about gender equality outside into the wider school. Do not segregate girls and boys into groups for eating or moving about from room to room. Encourage them to line up in mixed-gender lines.

When socialising, make opportunities for boys and girls to use the same areas of the playground. Let girls explore and avoid overprotecting them from activities that may be considered too ‘rough’ or difficult.

If the unfortunate issue of sexual harassment occurs (for example, boys chasing girls and grabbing them against their will), make sure to recorrect it, loudly, and explain in no uncertain terms why it is unacceptable. Girls should not just ‘learn how to handle it’ and ‘boys will be boys’ is a toxic excuse for males being unwilling to take responsibility for their actions.

Being explicit about your disproval when inequality occurs and why you disprove helps students see the results of their actions. When disciplining students, be fair and handle misbehaviours equally for boys and girls. Don’t forget, however, to praise students for evidence of equality and inclusion – this is much more powerful than constant negativity.

Gender inequality in school sport

There is often clear line between expectations of boys versus girls’ accomplishments in the sporting arena. Encouraging girls’ participation in sport and other physical activities is an easy way to challenge gender stereotypes for years to come, as it fosters confidence and ambition. This area can still be problematic, however as most schools fall into the habit of providing ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ sports.

Physiologically, many people believe that there are some downsides to allowing co-educational sporting teams, as boys and girls grow and build strength at different rates. However, in younger classrooms this is irrelevant – at 9 years old, boys and girls aren’t that different when it comes to physical ability.

Providing opportunities for a range of sports that are available to both boys and girls helps to level the playing field (so to speak), and it can be extended beyond that.  Actively encouraging girls to be team captains, choose teams, and discuss strategy builds their confidence and can attribute to more positive body image and self-esteem as they grow older.

Resources that help conquer gender inequality

Not only does challenging gender bias in schools promote gender equality long-term, it also creates learning equality between students and increases future potential for girls after school has finished.

In collaboration with International Women’s Day, Teach Starter have produced a range of engaging resources suitable for lower, middle and upper grades, to help you and your students study female achievements, and mindfully and purposefully challenge your own biases.

Teach starter

This collection is designed to celebrate the achievements of inspirational women, explore gender stereotypes, and challenge representations of women in media and the workplace. It includes biographies, IWD activity task cards, and hands on activities. This teaching resource collection will help you reinforce lessons about gender bias and inequality with your students.

teach start resource

This year use International Women’s Day – and every day – to explore how you and your students can help forge an inclusive world to address gender equality at school and promote a more equal world for girls and women everywhere.   


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