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Gender Issues
Gender Issues

The ABCs of Gender

Ah, gender and sexuality studies, about as useful as a white chalkboard!”
you think. But consider this: gender and sexuality are two forces that will,
like it or not, consciously or not, shape your classroom and staffroom,
often with a negative impact on students or staff. New and seasoned
teachers need to have a better understanding of the roots of gender and
sexuality to skilfully manage their associated problems.
The first step in our exploration of gender and sexuality in education is to
clarify what we mean by gender and sexuality, since the terms are often
conflated. Western society has traditionally viewed gender and sexuality
as integral to, and powered by, a person’s biological sex. According to this
standpoint, biological sex is a central factor in determining our identities.
Traditional Western vision of gender
Traditional Western vision of gender

Post-structuralist vision of gender
Post-structuralist vision of gender

Gender scholars however, tend to be post-structuralist, considering the
‘natural’ configurations above as the product of a set of highly regulated
societal rules, called the heterosexual matrix [1] . These scholars argue
that gender is a much more nebulous concept, incorporating such factors
as culture and parenthood. Just as the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, or
Keanu Reeves at the beginning of The Matrix, we perform traditional roles
as an affirmation of belonging, and because we have difficulty in imagining
a real alternative. Unlike Keanu though, most of us perform naturally...

For the purposes of clarity, SWG4 uses the following definitions:
Sex: the biological sex of a person; usually falling within a binary of male or
female, with very few natural exceptions.
Gender: the performed identities of 'boy'/'man' or 'girl'/'woman'.
Sexuality: the facet of our identities pertaining to sexual relations. Sexuality,
although often intersecting with gender, is dependent from it, just as it is
dependent of biological sex.

Gender: Preschool


We recall the words from the nursery rhyme –
What are little boys made of?…
Frogs and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails,

What are little girls made of?…
Sugar and spice
And all that's nice,…

Surely by now we know our children need to be valued and encouraged outside of these gender stereotypes. Do parents and early childhood educators encourage children to achieve their best regardless of gender? Witness a parent’s recent blog entry commenting on her son carrying a purse containing rocks, cars and sticks,

When a little boy carries a purse it means he's going to be gay? No one tell my husband that; after all, I know that as a child he used to carry his mother's bag around and probably stored cars, rocks, and sticks in it much like my son.[2]

How interesting that this mother in her quest to raise children in a non-stereotypical gender environment has actually, albeit unwittingly, stereotyped. Unfortunately her last 12 words negate all her hard work defending her child’s non-stereotypical gender right to carry a purse. She suggests her husband was carrying “cars, rocks and sticks” in his purse “much like my son”. Oops – there’s that stereotypical male stuff creeping in.

The example described above illustrates that avoiding gender stereotyping during the preschool years is not a simple task. It requires, at the very least, some forethought and an understanding of the complexities surrounding children’s development of their self-image.

Children’s play has been observed and researched for decades. According to Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, children age 2 to 6 years old are in the preoperational stage and learn based on what they see. They see behaviours of adults and witness their own and their peer’s behaviours during pretend play. Pretend play that employs imagination and unpredictability are key for children to explore different behaviours, learn from their experiences and begin to define who they are based on their learning. According to Doris Bergen’s 2001 article “Pretend play requires the ability to transform objects and actions symbolically; it is carried out through interactive social dialogue and negotiation; and it involves role taking, script knowledge, and improvisation.”.[3] Bergen’s article also notes “… rather than following a script, much of preschool children's pretend play involved improvisational exchanges.” In the article, Boys Gone Mild author Kirn recounts a personal story of boyhood play that resulted in injury and comments “According to the wisdom of the day, the wound was my fault because I had played too rough…” and “I have never found myself wishing a similar injury upon my 5-year-old son”[4] . He goes on to suggest rules surrounding play originating from the adult world are frequently out of step with children using their imagination and just playing by their own rules. Focusing on enabling children to engage in pretend play of their own making as they explore who they are helps diminish gender stereotyping imposed by well-meaning adults. Bergen finishes by concluding that “… educators should resist policies that reduce time for social pretend play experiences in preschool ...”

A series of articles in the Toronto Star newspaper this November explored recent neuroscientific findings that infant brains are NOT differentiated by genetics, and the implications on education. “Today, breathtaking findings by neuroscientists are showing that biology is the ultimate level playing field. The human brain at birth holds within it untold, often untapped, equal opportunity only slightly influenced by genetic prophecy.”[5] In other words these findings indicate that nurture is probably more important than nature, whether a child is biologically male of female, when it comes to cognitive outcomes. The articles go on to explain that the first several years of life, when synaptic connections are being made at a fantastic rate, are critically important to the child’s future cognitive abilities. So, two brains that start out the same can be dramatically different by as early as age 2 depending on the amount of love, talk, and play combined with the role models they interact with.

As we learned in the preceding paragraphs, children from ages 2 to 6 decide who they are based on observation of their environment, including role models. Their role models may include adults in their family, media characters, caregivers and preschool educators. These neuroscientific findings not only confirm the importance of the preschool years to cognitive development but give hope that children can learn simply that they are valued and deserve to be encouraged as a person, not a boy or a girl in particular.
How do parents and early childhood educators facilitate reducing the impact of society’s gender stereotyping on preschool children?

The following are some simple suggestions for teachers, from a 2005 article about reducing stereotyping in preschool that can easily apply to parenting as well.

“Some suggestions for teachers to create an environment to reduce gender stereotyping in a preschool environment include:

•Monitor your own behavior as a teacher in various situations. (How do you handle emotional behavior, such as when a child cries? Do you treat boys and girls the same?)
•Recognize the abilities of all children without considering gender. Encourage children's self-worth, regardless of the activities they select. (Are both boys and girls acknowledged for sitting quietly? Are both boys and girls recognized for playing in the 'housekeeping' area?)
•Foster gender equality by encouraging boys and girls to do the same activities. (Encourage both genders to build with blocks and engage in craft activities.)
•Expose children to models of people in non-traditional gender roles.”[6]

The_Paper_Bag_Princess.jpgThere are many recommended books for children at preschool age that avoid gender stereotyping, one of which is The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch. Annick Press Ltd., 1986. This book not only avoids gender stereotyping, it offers a non-traditional gender role model. The book describes the exploits of a brave, focused girl, Elizabeth, who ingeniously rescues a boy, Ronald, from a dragon. Unfortunately poor Ronald has learned and subscribes to gender stereotyping so instead of appreciating Elizabeth’s tenacity and creativity, he denounces her for her appearance. Elizabeth decides Ronald isn’t so wonderful after all and goes off to live her own dreams.

There is hope that educators can play a part in creating more “Elizabeths” and fewer “Ronalds”.

Learning Gender: Inter-student, inter-teacher, and teacher-student interactions

Much gender formation is done through inter-student relations: studies of school-children have shown that they themselves apply the rules of the heterosexual matrix, and apparently with greater strictness than adults. Inter-student relations as an illustration of deeply engrained gender values are in society, none more so than those in primary schools. Often viewed as asexual arenas because of the uncomfortable linking of sexuality and children, research shows that primary schools are in fact hosts to highly gendered and sexualized processes of identity-formation [7] . Emma Renold, a scholar studying pupils from two British primary schools, found that children invariably divided themselves into groups of boys and girls and attempted to establish strong gender identities corresponding to traditional gender roles. Although some boys or girls were less overtly masculine or feminine, all pupils made explicit references to their own heterosexuality, either during interviews or observations, and the concept of homosexuality was heavily censured. More highly traditional gender and sexual identities correlated strongly with greater social success and self-esteem; homosexual identities, even when falsely attributed by other students, frequently lead to intense bullying, and infrequently, suicide [8] .

Pupils however, are not the only ones to suffer from gender and sexuality stereotyping. Teachers with non-traditional genders and sexualities are frequently troubled by the prospect of sexual harassment or discrimination, and the inconsistency with which these issues have been handled [9] . Even a teacher’s sex, regardless of sexuality or gender, is often enough to cause controversy; government drives to recruit more male teachers have been roundly criticized by feminists for undermining women’s ability to teach and act as role-models to both sexes. Research has found that male teachers, particularly at the primary level [10] where they are few and far between, exaggerate their masculinity in response to the highly feminized world around them and the claimed need for male role-models. In addition, males in elementary and secondary schools are substantially more likely to become a principal [11] . Both of these factors clearly entrench traditional gender ideals.

Teacher attitudes may perpetuate the cycle of gender stereotyping. After all, it’s easy to spot instances of classroom gender-bias when authorities such as teachers and textbooks stereotype males and females into different professions [12] . Less easy to spot though, are the small, often unthinking, differences in how we treat students. Boys are reprimanded more than girls, but receive more constructive feedback. Girls are praised for neatness, or helping others, but discouraged from being vocal.
Discrimination of this kind has been cited as causing low self-esteem in girls and high drop-out rates for boys [13] . There are however, a significant number of scholars and educators who are reacting against this notion, and indeed the entire notion of gender and sexuality as separate from our bodies. Recent advances in neuroscience, genetics, and so on, seem to point to what many have always suspected- boys and girls do think and learn differently.

Whilst opinion is still so divided as to what gender is — a biological reality, or a social one — educators are unable to agree as to the best way to overcome the problems posed by these differences. As one group calls for the promotion of androgynous behaviour [14] in order to defeat gender and sexual discrimination, another group advocates the use of gender-specific classroom management and teaching techniques [15] . Whichever opinions we agree with, whatever techniques we apply, and however enlightened we believe ourselves to be, perhaps the best approach is also the simplest — to ask students how they, as individuals, would like to be treated.

Gender and Sexuality in Adolescents

Adolescence brings with it the onset of puberty and raging hormones. It is also at this stage that sex, gender, and sexuality begin to converge. By the time they reach high school, the majority of students possess some form of gender identity. Nonetheless, their sexual self-identities may well be put to the test in this new environment. Research indicates that in some Canadian high schools over 60% of grade 11 students report having engaged in sexual intercourse[16] . As a result, for many students it is now their actions and not their ideas that will define them as sexual beings.
On the path to sexual self-discovery, many students may attempt to test various gender related assumptions. Some of these notions, if they are rooted in gender stereotypes, may lead students into antagonistic spheres. For instance, common beliefs associated with male sexuality include that (a) men are always motivated to have sex, (b) it is the man’s responsibility to initiate sexual contact and (c) that men may have to overcome female resistance to sex[17] . Likewise, a common belief about women is that they should initially resist the advances of men.
For those who choose to live outside of various sexual norms, the journey may be a long and arduous one. Harassment and victimization are common experiences for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning (LGBQ) adolescents[18] . These students often find themselves caught within the boundaries of a system which privileges heterosexuality and identifies heterosexuality as normal and even desirable[19] .
Gender stereotypes may also be detrimental to students who identify themselves as heterosexual. The divide often resides in socioeconomic status. For instance, research indicates that working-class girls are far more likely to fall into the trappings of gender stereotyping than their middle class counterparts. In particular, a great deal of research has gone into the notion of “hyper-femininity” where stereotyped ambitions of marriage and motherhood are given priority over potential aspirations of higher education and a career[20] .
Clearly, promoting gender stereotypes has far reaching consequenses. What begins as gender forming in young children often quickly blossoms into action rooted in gender stereotypes; often to the detriment of student development.

How do Gender Issues Affect Teachers?

We (teachers) generally tend to feel fairly confident about our values and our genuine desire to work in the best interest of our students. For the most part, we would never intentionally favour students of one sex over the other, and most of us likely believe that we already treat all students fairly and with equity. If we look closely at our thoughts, our actions, and the results of these, however, we may be surprised at what we find. Just like the music experts from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, our judgments and decisions may not be as objective and fair as we think they are, littered with unconscious biases and presuppositions. [21] These biases and presuppositions are the real danger to teachers because we are models for our students, and if we allow not only our own actions and words, but also our students’ actions and words to be influenced by gender biases, the results can detriment everybody.

Western society’s tremendous progress in the domain of gender equity is not adequate reason to become complacent. Every day in the classroom, “micro-inequities” contribute to both short- and long-term disadvantages for both boys and girls, and research has shown that “girls receive fewer academic contacts, are asked lower level questions, and are provided less constructive feedback and encouragement than boys.” [22] Such research can be surprising to teachers because it suggests that gender inequity lies hidden in the subtleties of their practice that they likely did not consider before. It brings to light a problem that is seemingly nonexistent until it receives the kind of attention required to overcome it.

What can we do about it?

Gender inequity comes in many forms, and certainly not only in the classroom. Gender and sexuality issues are deeply ingrained into society, so why should teachers bother trying to address such a large issue? Won’t their efforts just be wasted as they and their students have already accumulated their own unconscious biases? Schools are excellent training grounds for children of all ages, and although they are not the only places for children to develop their social and behavioural skills, they are a significant one. By raising awareness of and taking action against gender inequity in schools, students and teachers can begin to actively address such issues. Like any big change, the results will not be instant and widespread, but persistence will raise awareness and inspire action in more and more people.

The most immediate means of addressing gender and sexuality issues as a teacher is in the classroom. Before teachers can begin to take action, however, they must analyze, question, and challenge their own practices and beliefs. Frawley states, “Teachers can recognize their own biases by reflection on how they treat children in light of their own beliefs and expectations for each gender. This is the first step in accepting children for who they really are. The second step is to become gender-neutral by not favoring one side or the other. This can be accomplished by supporting classroom behavior that defies gender stereotypes.”[23] Frawley’s two steps provide a solid framework from which to begin the journey to greater gender equity in the classroom, and will be explored further in the following sections.

Recognizing Gender Biases

Teachers are not immune to having gender biases. Individuals tend to think that their values are wholesome and fair, but they have seldom examined their values closely in specific contexts such as in regards to gender and sexuality issues. Teachers must increase their awareness of gender biases in order to recognize them both in themselves and in their students. Because these biases are so subtle and overlooked, finding them is a difficult task to take on by oneself. Much research has gone into the topic and provides several examples of gender biases in classrooms. Teachers can collaborate with colleagues to observe and evaluate each other from a variety of perspectives. Teachers can also self-evaluate by videotaping themselves teaching and by reflecting on their practices. The gender equity quiz on this page provides a list of questions teachers can use to guide their reflection. But awareness is only the first step; Teachers must take action and change their methods once they have pinpointed what is there to change and where they can improve.

Improving Our Practices

Attaining gender and sexuality equity in the classroom requires action from teachers. There are basically two ways in which teachers can improve their methods to do so: by eliminating gender biases and by promoting gender equity. Frawley goes into great detail and provides many examples of steps teachers can take in his article “Gender Bias in the Classroom: Current Controversies and Implications for Teachers.” Drawing examples from Frawley’s article, eliminating gender biases involves actions or precautions teachers can take to reduce preferential treatment to one gender and/or giving all students equal and fair opportunity, such as saying “fire fighter” rather than “fireman”, giving students enough time to formulate and verbalize their answers (boys tend to jump into the conversation whereas girls tend to take more time), responding consistently whether a boy or a girl shouts out in class, and challenging sexist remarks from students. Promoting gender equity involves including materials and opportunities in the classroom that do not perpetuate the traditional gender stereotypes, such as having a female engineer come in as a guest speaker, forming groups for games or activities that combine boys and girls, and commenting on and discussing any gender biases in course materials.
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Through such awareness and such actions, teachers can begin to reduce the implicit stereotyping that occurs daily in their classrooms. Ideally, the result will be that students become free to express themselves however they wish, without fear of breaking some mould, and that they will be defined by who they really are and not who others think they should be.

And Finally...

Gender and sexuality stereotypes are ingrained in our history.

Although men, women, and everybody beyond and in between are considered and treated equitably politically (well...), there are still many social barriers in most of us that prevent them from being seen as true people, defined by more than just their sex, gender, and sexuality.

Awareness of the existence of these stereotypes is the first step. We also must constantly strive to learn more about their impact and how to counteract or even avoid stereotyping according to gender and sexualtiy. This is especially true for educators.

When gender and sexuality stereotypes are eliminated, people are free to be who they want to be, and they are no longer judged based on the gender and sexuality they “ought to follow” given their biological sex. The key phrase is "free to be who they want to be". This, after all, is the ultimate goal of education -- to enable others to achieve their goals and dreams.


  1. ^ Butler, Judith, 1999 Gender Trouble (London: Routledge)
  2. ^ Christina WitkowskiGender Stereotypes and Children, Big Girls Don’t Cry or Do They?, June 16, 2009. /www.associatedcontent.com/article/1836775/gender_stereotypes_and_children_pg2.html?cat=25
  3. ^ Doris BergenPretend Play and Young Children's Development,2001. http://www.ericdigests.org/2002-2/play.htm
  4. ^ Walter Kirn, "Boys Gone Mild" [New York Times Magazine, 3 June 2007, pp. 11-12]
  5. ^ Alanna MitchellAtkinson Series. November 2009. The Toronto Star. Saturday, October 31, 2009 and Tuesday, November 3, 2009.
  6. ^ Alison Levitch, M.A., and Sara Gable, Ph.DPretend Play and Young Children's Development,2001. http://www.ericdigests.org/2002-2/play.htm
  7. ^ Renolds, Emma, p309 "Coming out: gender, (hetero)sexuality and the primary school", pp. 309-326 in Gender and Education 12 (3), 2000.
  8. ^ pp51-52, Schneider, Margaret S. and Dimito, Anne: “Educators’ Beliefs about Raising Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in the Schools: The Experience in Ontario, Canada” pp49-71 in Journal of LGBT Youth, Vol.5(4), 2008.
  9. ^ p50 & pp52-54, ibid
  10. ^ pp39-42, Skelton, Christine: “Failing to get men into primary teaching: a feminist critique” pp39-54 in Journal of Education Policy Vol.24(1), January 2009.
  11. ^ pp597-599, Haase, Malcolm: “’I don’t do the mothering role that lots of female teachers do’: male teachers, gender, power and social organization” pp597-608 in British Journal of Sociology Vol.29(6), November 2008.
  12. ^ Baldwin, P. and D. Baldwin. 1992. “The Portrayal of Women in Classroom Textbooks.” pp110-114 in Canadian Social Studies, Vol.26
  13. ^ Blumberg, Rae Lesser, “The invisible obstacle to educational equality: gender bias in textbooks” pp345-361 in Prospects Vol.38(3) September 2008.
  14. ^ Frawley, Timothy, pp221-222 “Gender Bias in the Classroom: Current Controversies and Implications for Teachers” pp221-227 in Childhood Education Vol.81(4) Summer 2005.
  15. ^ pp221-222, ibid
  16. ^ Cregheur, L. A., Casey, J. M., & Banfield, H.G. (1992). Sexuality, AIDS, and decision making: A study of Newfoundland youth. St John’s, Newfoundland: Queen’s Press.
  17. ^ Muehlenhard, C. L., & MacNaughton, J. S. (1988). Women’s beliefs about women who “lead men on.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 7, 65-79.
  18. ^ Kosciw, J. G., & Diaz, E. M. (2006). The 2005 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.
  19. ^ Chesir-Teran, D. N. (2003). Conceptualizing and assessing heterosexism in high schools: A setting-level approach. American Journal of Community Psychology, 31, 267–280. doi: 10.1023/A:1023910820994.
  20. ^ Francis, B. (2000) Boys, girls and achievement: addressing the classroom issues (London, RoutledgeFalmer).
  21. ^ Gladwell, M., “Listening with Your Eyes” [from Blink, Malcolm Gladwell, New York: Longman, 2005, pp. 245-254].
  22. ^ Marshall, C.S., & Reinhartz, J. (1997). Gender issues in the classroom. The Clearing House, 70(6), 333-337
  23. ^ Frawley, p223

Our initiating readings:

  • Emma Renold, "Coming out: gender, (hetero)sexuality and the primary school" [Gender and Education 12 (3), 2000, pp. 309-326].
  • Deirdre M. Kelly, Shauna Pomerantz, and Dawn Currie, "Skater girlhood and emphasized feminity: 'you can't land an ollie properly in heels'" [Gender and Education 17 (3), 2005, pp. 229-248].
  • Walter Kirn, "Boys Gone Mild" [New York Times Magazine, 3 June 2007, pp. 11-12].
  • Malcolm Gladwell, “Listening with Your Eyes” [from Blink, Malcolm Gladwell, New York: Longman, 2005, pp. 245-254].
  • Case Study: "Give the Teacher a Valentine" [from What to do?: Case Studies for Teachers, William Hare & John Portelli, Halifax: Edphil Books, 1998, pp. 104-106].

Our PowerPoint Presentation

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Further readings and resources: