Gender stereotypes

Almost everybody will have heard the statements that boys are better at mathematics and science, but that girls have better academic grades overall (Miljard, Wheatcroft & Bearne, 2018). These stereotypes have been used in educational practices for years to reform the curricula or teaching practices and encourage girls to be more interested in STEM (Chesky & Goldstein, 2018). And yes, admittedly, there are many studies that show that girls are higher achievers in literacy or show more interest in reading and that boys are more heard in the classroom because they are perceived to be more assertive in classroom communication (Miljard et al., 2018). However, it can be dangerous for teachers to take these to heart and to plan lessons to accommodate these stereotypes, it is also an exclusive practice for those students who do not identify with the binary female-male system. Assuming that students are naturally gifted or weak in a subject because of their gender could potentially lead to misdiagnosing learning needs or to them not being challenged enough (Gould & Ashton-Smith, 2011; Gunzelmann & Connell, 2006).

Exploring gender stereotypes with the students can show the influence these have in our daily life. We are mostly unaware of them because they are so widespread in our environment that we tend to take them for truth (Miljard et al., 2018). Some projects that can be done in a primary school to help students gain awareness are the following:

  • Research the gender depictions in toy stores and catalogues.
  • Complete a class research to find out what the favourite subjects are of the students and see if this data is similar to the stereotypes we expect to find.
  • Discuss professions and invite people from the school community to talk about their job, do nurses or teachers have to be female and bus drivers or scientists male?
  • Ask your students about people that do not fit in the traditional male-female boxes, what are some of the challenges they might have? To start this discussion, you can introduce Caster Semenya who is a South African athlete, born intersex, and is currently having to defend her right to compete in the women’s competition.

Gender spectrum and the LGBTQI+ community

The LGBTQI+ community is constantly changing and adapting to be fully inclusive and fit the needs of the increasingly diverse world we live in. This is reflected in the interchangeable usage of LGBTQI+, LGBTQIA, LGBTQI2 or any other variation used to represent the community. Each letter stands for a different subgroup and the most suitable version can be selected depending on the user’s preferences. Some organisations or individuals prefer to use the term SOGI, which stands for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity as they view it to be more inclusive than LGBTQI+ which uses the initials of some, but not all, subgroups it is composed of. There is an increase of awareness regarding the different groups, and Ehrenhalt (2016) stresses the importance of paying equal attention to all subgroups and moving beyond only mentioning same-sex relationships.

The diversity in how gender is approached will become apparent when looking at the LGBTQI+ community and opens the possibility of facilitating a discussion on the gender spectrum. The binary thinking of being male or female is socially contstructed view on gender and can also be thought of as a spectrum that is open to as many different interpretations as there are people within it (Miljard et al., 2018).

Learn and teach more about gender identity
  • The Genderbread person can help clarify the differences between gender expression, gender identity, anatomical sex and attraction. The infographic and accompanying explanation can help grasp these concepts that could be confusing to students.
  • The Youtube channel Queer Kid Stuff uses catchy songs and guest speakers to explain all things LGBTQI+ in short videos that are understandable to young and older children.

Pronouns and language

The importance of respectful language has been mentioned multiple times, and one of the most important messages to be shared here is that it is absolutely okay to make mistakes or ask questions. It is more important to try and say something than remain silent out of fear (Ehrenhalt, 2016), similarly, many people would be welcoming any questions instead of having to correct assumptions about their identity, as long as these questions are phrased respectfully.

What You Can Do

Discuss with your students how questions could be asked and comments that can be harmful to others and be transparent in your own learning as an adult, that you also feel uncomfortable sometimes or make mistakes, but that by reflecting on them you learn.

When learning about gender identity, a lot of new vocabulary is introduced that might be confusing to students since they might not be able to relate to it. Using the correct terminology for what is commonly considered as ‘mainstream’ in gender discourses, might help with explaining the new vocabulary. Most students will identity as cisgender, which Teaching Tolerance describes as the alignment of the gender identity with the biological gender assigned at birth (Teaching Tolerance, n.d.), when you are transgender, you do not identify with your assigned gender. Explaining new concepts relating to gender identity in this way will show that everybody identifies as something, and that not only those who differ from the mainstream identify as ‘different’ (Gidinski, 2019).

Our name is a part of who we are as a person and unintentional harm can be done by using an incorrect name or pronoun when addressing someone. In many cases someone might prefer to be addressed with the gender-neutral they/them instead of she/her or he/him. This might not be obvious so cues will have to be taken from conversations with others, or by asking the person. Similarly, with names, the name that someone chooses to use might not (yet) be what is officially documented on their administrative paperwork. Respect the choices that are shared with you, and make sure to ask for consent before sharing this with others. Even if they are willing to share their new name with you, it might not mean that they are ready yet for it to be communicated publicly.

Consent and body positivity

Lastly, there are two topics that can be discussed as part of a sexual education curriculum or discussions on gender identity but can also be considered to be stand-alone parts of the socio-emotional curriculum, these are consent and body positivity.

Consent is most often talked about in the context of sexual relationships but has a wider significance than that. Having a mutual agreement in any kind of relationship is important and should be introduced to children from a young age. Pettway (2016) discusses three different types of consent, the first one being ‘no means no’. This is the most commonly used phrase to address consent, however, it puts the onus on whoever is unwilling to participate and can create a ‘guilty’ party. In a primary classroom, this can be a student who does not want to be included in a photograph or share materials with a peer. To prevent negative feelings, it would be better to establish habits of gaining affirmative consent, ‘yes means yes’, in which all parties share the responsibility after agreeing and no actions have been taken until all parties are in concurrence. For the classroom this can be gathering materials after selecting appropriate ones or playing a game after deciding on the rules. Lastly, there is the concept of mutuality, which requires all those involved to have an awareness of each other to understand if a/n dis/agreement is truly what that person means, or if it could have been influenced by the social context. In order to facilitate this is a classroom, the children need to understand the importance of listening to each other and of honesty.

Developing your gender identity is a process of learning about oneself and accepting all aspects relating to this, including the mental and the physical. For some, the outward appearance might not align with how they identify, and they will seek possible changes in their body and how they express themselves. When discussing transgender people in the classroom for example, the process of transitioning might have come up and why people want to change their body and how this is done in order to have their physical form be consistent with the picture they have of themselves. However, discomfort in our appearance is not something only gender nonconforming people might struggle with. Wanting to change something about our body is an idea that everybody will have at some point, and children are very susceptible to the ideal images they see in popular media or the scrutiny as a result of social comparisons (Itzoe & Frasso, 2020).

What You Can Do

  • Altering images or using filters on social media show an illusion of reality. Explore how photos can be altered and how this leads to a deceptive view on what people look like.
  • Design characters and the message they might want to communicate by how they express themselves.
  • Be aware that body discomfort is not limited to female-identifying individuals and to weight. Open the topic to include everyone.



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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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