How to Encourage Gender Equity and Equality in the Classroom

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As an elementary school teacher, you may think your students are too young for discussions about gender. But did you know that children as young as four years old already express discriminatory beliefs based on gender? The earlier we can empower children with the belief that all gender identities (including their own) deserve respect, the better prepared all students will be for success.

Here we’ll discuss what gender equality is, how it differs from gender equity, and why both gender equity and equality need to have a place in your curriculum. Then learn how to make your classroom a safe and welcoming place for all students.

What Are Gender Equality and Equity?

First, let’s explain what we mean by gender. Gender is here defined as a student’s social identity as male, female, or non-binary—the last of which refers to students who identify as a gender other than “male” or “female.” Gender definitions also include transgender students, who identify as a gender that is different from their biological sex.

Gender equality involves empowering all students and providing them with the same human rights.[7] It also includes correcting biases students hold about themselves or gender identities other than their own. As a teacher, you’ll work with many students, some of whom might have trouble understanding their own or other students’ gender. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of and find ways to affirm your students’ identities.[14] You can positively change the way your students see both themselves and others.

According to the ACT Center for Youth, true gender equality can be reached when these three needs are met for all students:[9]

  • Equitable access and use of resources
  • Equitable participation
  • Safety or freedom from violence

And how is gender equality different from gender equity? It can be helpful to look at gender equality as the end goal and gender equity as the means to get there.[8] Gender equity refers to promoting fairness in education, as well as confronting stereotypes and biases that have historically limited a student’s potential. When we achieve gender equality, all students will be free to pursue their education without fear of discrimination or harassment because of their gender.

The Importance of Gender Equity and Equality in the Classroom

Why confront gender bias in the classroom as early as possible? A survey involving over 2,000 children ages 4 to 16 found that from an early age, children make assumptions that confirm gender stereotypes.[2] Children learn how to think about themselves and others from the messages they hear in society. And often, these messages include stereotypes about gender that stick with them for the rest of their lives.

In the classroom, students often encounter implicit or explicit assumptions about gender.[12] For example, girls interested in STEM subjects may be discouraged if others say such topics aren’t very “feminine” pursuits. And the prevalence of this stereotype may be linked to the fact that more than 50% of all women in STEM ultimately leave their field due to hostile work environments.[8] Also, 75% of all transgender students report feeling unsafe at school, which affects their academic achievement in very serious and harmful ways.[10]

You can make a difference for younger students by teaching them to find strength in their gender identity and to treat kindly those with different identities than their own. According to Today’s Parent writer Gordon Nore, children are often already thinking about their gender and how it relates to the world around them. As a teacher, you can help facilitate their thoughts and discussions in healthy ways. You can also promote better understanding among your students for those who are different from themselves.

Four Ways to Promote Gender Equity and Equality in Education

Looking for ways to discuss gender equality issues in your classroom and move towards gender equity? We’ve put together four examples of how you can promote gender equality for all of your students.

Be a Role Model for Your Students

Students, especially younger children, often learn by imitation.[2] As a teacher, be aware of your own assumptions about gender and try to correct your biases as you notice them.

In relevant situations, empower your students to believe in their potential to achieve their dreams regardless of their gender identity—and that their gender is a strength, never a weakness. Also, use language in class that is inclusive of transgender and non-binary students, such as using the name and pronouns that a student goes by, even if it is different from their school records.[11]

Don’t Connect Gender to an Ability or Personality Trait

Sometimes our language can reinforce assumptions about gender. Be aware of the language you use in class, and avoid making assumptions about anyone’s ability, profession, or personality based on their gender.

For example, TeachThought suggests you include a female construction worker or male nurse in a class assignment (such as a story problem) to challenge your students’ assumptions and promote gender equity.[1] It can also be helpful to avoid making wide generalizations about gender in class, such as the assumption that boys are louder and girls are quieter, or assuming that all of your students identify as their birth sex.

Include Gender Equality in Your Curriculum

Many textbooks are problematic when it comes to gender. Often they don’t include many notable female figures, tokenize the experiences of women, and stereotype gender roles in harmful ways.[5] If you’re able to pick the textbook you use, try to find one that is known for its equitable treatment of gender.

If not, try to supplement your curriculum by teaching your students about both men and women who challenged their society’s ideas about gender and changed their communities in meaningful ways. It can also be helpful to include gender non-conforming and transgender people in your curriculum to help students with these identities feel represented and accepted.

Teach Students to Be Aware of Personal Biases

One of the best ways to confront gender discrimination in the classroom is by simply making your students aware of it. Teach students about implicit bias, or beliefs we might hold about ourselves or others because of sexist messages we have heard.[3]

Tell your students that many people hold these biases, and it doesn’t mean they are bad people. The important thing is for students to acknowledge their own assumptions. Once they do, they can challenge them to actively change those assumptions—to recognize that a person’s abilities are not linked to their gender.

Sources:
1. TeachThought Staff. 6 Ways You Can Promote Gender Equality In Your Classroom. Retrieved from teachthought.com: teachthought.com/education/6-ways-can-promote-gender-equality-classroom/.
2. Elesapiens Staff. Strategies to promote gender equality in the classroom. Retrieved from elesapiens.com: https://www.elesapiens.com/blog/strategies-to-promote-gender-equality-in-the-classroom/
3. Briggs, S. How to Teach Students About Gender Equality. Retrieved from opencolleges.edu: https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/gender-equality/.
4. United Nations Development Programme. Almost 90% of Men/Women Globally Are Biased Against Women. Retrieved from undp.org: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2020/Gender_Social_Norms_Index_2020.html.
5. Klein, S. Handbook for Achieving Sex Equity Through Education. Retrieved from eric.ed.gov: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED290810.pdf.
6. Bailey, S.M. Shortchanging Girls and Boys. Educational Leadership, May 1996, 53(8), pp. 75-79.
7. United Nations Staff. Gender Equality: Why it Matters. Retrieved from un.org: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Goal-5.pdf.
8. ForbesWomen Staff. Why We Need Gender Equity Now. Retrieved from forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2017/09/14/why-we-need-gender-equity-now/.
9. ACT for Youth Center of Excellence. Understanding Gender and GenderResearch, Facts, and Findings. Retrieved from actforyouth.net: www.actforyouth.net/resources/rf/rf_gender1_1213.pdf.
10. National Center for Transgender Equality. Youth & Students. Retrieved from transequality.org: https://transequality.org/issues/youth-students
11. Welcoming Schools Staff. Affirming Gender in Elementary School: Social Transitioning. Retrieved from welcomingschools.org: https://www.welcomingschools.org/pages/affirming-gender-in-elementary-school-social-transitioning/
12. Smith, M. J., & Payne, E. Binaries and biology: Conversations with elementary education professionals after professional development on supporting transgender students. The Educational Forum, 2016, 80(1), pp. 34-47.

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