Encouraging gender equality in schools

Teachers and parents should help fight gender stereotypes
Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

There are many gender stereotypes relating to skills, academic potential, and careers, which we can all perpetuate without meaning to. They can have a real influence on how girls and boys feel about their own abilities. Can a whole-school programme help teachers, parents and students overcome stereotypes, changing students’ attitudes and aspirations?

Gender stereotypes continue to exist in and out of classrooms. They can affect how students feel about different subjects – for example, girls tend to have higher maths anxiety than boys, despite minimal or no differences in maths performance between girls and boys. Even in subjects where there are gender differences, the differences are small and likely due to societal expectations in large part.

According to the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, the assertion that girls and boys have different cognitive abilities is a neuromyth. They emphasise that any existing differences are not relevant to academic potential.

“Language potentially influences students’ career goals, their choice of subjects at school, or even just what lessons they prefer.”

While most of us probably know that there are no meaningful differences in the academic potential of girls and boys, we can all say things that inadvertently perpetuate gender stereotypes. One example is gendered language, such as using the terms ‘fireman’ and policeman’ instead of ‘firefighter’ and ‘police officer’ – these terms give children the impression that those jobs are meant for men. Girls might be addressed as ‘darling’ while boys might be told they are strong.

Language potentially influences students’ career goals, their choice of subjects at school, or even just what lessons they prefer. In addition, gendered language excludes students who are non-binary. Gender-neutral terms include all pupils and set no expectations as to who might take on different roles.

The social enterprise Lifting Limits recently shared the results of their pilot programme aiming to promote gender equality in five primary schools. This whole-school programme was designed to equip pupils, parents, and school staff to recognise and challenge unintentional gender bias. The report describes the introduction of a ‘gender lens’ to school over the course of a year, including the identification of areas for development, training for staff, assemblies, resources, and a gender champion to challenge stereotypes.

“School staff and parents need to work together to show students that their aspirations need not be influenced by gender.”

The report shows some promising results for all groups of participants. Prior to the programme, just 22% of the 3- to 5-year-old children thought that football is for everyone, compared to 70% by the end. More staff reported confidence in identifying and addressing sexism and stereotyping at the end of the programme, and parents felt more able to talk about gender stereotypes with their children.

Particularly fascinating are the quotes from participants. One teacher said, ‘I was shocked about how many things were putting limits on children without us even noticing them’, while a boy said, ‘Now I’m probably treating girls a bit better than I was before’.

This pilot study had no comparison group – perhaps early years children are always more equality-oriented at the end of a year at school. But the baseline figures and quotes, along with a wealth of prior evidence about gender gaps and stereotypes, show that schools have work to do in encouraging gender equality.

The programme is currently being introduced to more schools, which will hopefully allow for more comprehensive evaluation – highlighting the effective aspects that could be taken on by more schools. School staff and parents need to work together to show students that their aspirations need not be influenced by gender.

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