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Gender bias in the classroom: current controversies and implications for teachers.

Teacher must learn to recognize and eliminate gender bias, because it can limit students' ambitions and accomplishments.

Children develop their own ideas about gender at an early age, as evidenced by the clothes they wear, their dramatic play, their playground talk, and their classroom work. For example, following a theme on "elections," a 3rd-grade boy made the following entry in his writing journal: "The United States has not had a woman president because girls get a different education." This simple statement is indicative of deeply rooted social beliefs perpetuating the unequal treatment of girls and boys in school. Teachers' biases, intentional or otherwise, also send clear and harmful messages that are very influential as children form beliefs in their own abilities. Children's perceptions of gender roles are affected not only by overt forms of gender bias, such as being told they can or cannot do a task because of their gender, but also by the "hidden curriculum'--the subtle lessons that children encounter every day through teachers' behaviors, feedback, classroom segregation, and instructional materials.

Teachers must learn to recognize and eliminate gender bias, because it can limit students' ambitions and accomplishments (Sanders, 2003). This article will present a number of strategies that will help elementary teachers to reduce gender stereotypes in classrooms.

Gender bias persists in many elementary classrooms, and research (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1992, 1999; Sadker & Sadker, 1994) has documented gender inequity in society. Teachers sometimes perpetuate male dominance in the classroom when they (often unconsciously) make males the focus of instruction by giving them more frequent and meticulous attention (Sadker, 2000). The harmful effects of gender bias and differential treatment on girls' self-esteem, self-confidence, and achievement have been the focus of numerous articles (Bauer, 2000; Sadker, 1999; Streitmatter, 1994; Wellhousen & Yin, 1997). These inequities are so pronounced that the comment from the 3rd-grade boy in the opening paragraph may not be that far off the mark: Girls do experience school in qualitatively different ways than boys do.

Are Differences Between Girls and Boys Socially or Biologically Determined?

Many educators continue to question whether girls and boys are indeed cognitively different and therefore need to be taught differently. Are gender styles and preferences biologically or socially determined? In her book The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Sommers (2000) says the doctrine that boys and girls are the same and that masculinity and femininity are simply a matter of social conditioning does not hold up to careful study. She notes that progressive advancements in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, genetics, and neuroendocrinology cast doubt on the social constructivist theory, indicating that the nature of boys and girls is genetically determined to some degree.

While Gurian (2001) acknowledges culture's powerful influence on children, he argues that there is a deeper, natural factor--developmental chronology and structural brain-based differences between females and males. Positronic emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have captured gender differences in memory, processing, learning styles, and styles of intelligences. Other investigations (Richardson, 1997; Streitmatter, 1994), however, conclude that gender variations in cognition result from males' and females' different experiences, not from biological causes.

This debate continues to focus on two questions: Are females and males fundamentally different? And, if so, should they be treated the same or differently? In the meantime, feminist scholars continue to ask how this difference is produced and reproduced in the context of schools and schooling, and what can be done to battle inequity (Abu E1-Haj, 2003).

If we are to believe that a clear and consistent pattern of differential achievement between male and female cognitive abilities exists (e.g., men and women are innately inclined to do better in different content areas), then we need to ask why schools have been so remiss in their duty to recognize these differences (Caporrimo, 1998). In order to understand differences in performance and achievement, Sanders (2000) acknowledges that you must take into account both biological (individual) and sociocultural factors. She adds, "The central issue therefore should not be whether individual differences exist; the real questions are, So what? And what can be done to address differences in performance?" (p. 183).

Will Single-Gender Classrooms Make Our Schools More Equitable?

Some educators have addressed differential performance by advocating for gender-separate instruction, especially in math and science classes, where boys typically outperform girls (Bowman, 2000). Some argue that a "girls only" school approach will not only disadvantage boys, but also will disrupt the gender balance in student populations. A resulting majority-male classroom could have negative effects on the girls who remain in that setting. These researchers further argue that attempts to make the classroom supposedly more nurturing for girls by emphasizing interpersonal relationships are misguided and would water down the curriculum. This "soft touch" approach, "wrapping calculus in a pink ribbon," assumes that girls and boys need different instructional surroundings to flourish (Lee, 1997). Some view this approach as part of an anti-male movement, bolstering girls" achievement at the expense of boys and making schools more equitable by eliminating masculine stereotypes, and "feminizing" boys (Sommers, 2000).

This view that girls and boys are cognitively different and should be treated differently or taught separately has led to some confusion about the relationship between gender and teaching practices. Some have responded by saying that boys" emotional needs have been neglected and boys are now badly in need of attention (Kindlon & Thompson, 2002; Sommers, 2000).

These polarized approaches to education fail to recognize a middle ground for children who are not strongly gender-typed as masculine or feminine. The aim should be to not only stop labeling children as such, but also accept and encourage androgynous behavior for both genders.

Sadker (2002) points out the irony that the gender debate, which typically was thought to primarily concern females, now rests on how well boys are doing in school. Furthermore, he notes that the gender war being waged on boys and the idea that "girls rule school" is not only ridiculous, but also deceptive; the truth is that boys and girls exhibit different strengths as well as needs, and that gender stereotypes shortchange both genders.

Despite the contemporary orthodoxy that girls are now advantaged and doing better than boys in school, children's notions can be quite different; the prevalent view among children (both girls and boys) is that it is still better being a boy than a girl because there are, indeed, more advantages (Reay, 2001; Sadker, 2002).

The Destructive Nature of Gender Stereotyping

Research seldom addresses how gender stereotyping affects and miseducates boys as well. Pollack (2002) says that the myth that "boys should be boys"--fulfilling the stereotype of the "dominant and macho" male--impedes many of their natural behaviors. Boys who do not fit the pattern of being outspoken, competitive, and autonomous often endure ridicule and subsequent feelings of failure and shame. Boys often are reluctant to express their feelings for fear of being labeled as "feminine."

A situation with an elementary schoolboy's portfolio illustrates this point. Each year, from kindergarten through the 4th grade, a boy (whom I will call Nathan) drew a self-portrait and placed it in his portfolio. Nathan is very artistic, dramatic, and theatrical; in the early grades he freely depicted himself as a girl. When his 4th-grade male classmates spied his drawings, they began to ridicule him. He was belittled, excluded, and essentially subordinated to being girl-like. After that, Nathan began acting out and misbehaving in class, would often make self-deprecating remarks, and had low self-esteem and a poor self-image. His behavior and slipping academic performance necessitated supportive intervention.

Academic and social statistics indicate that boys are more often labeled as socially disturbed, retained at grade level in elementary school, and identified for social services than are girls (McCormick, 1994). Sadker (2002) suggests that boys do not always fit comfortably in schools not because of the presence of girls or because a majority of teachers are women, but rather 'because of how the school day runs; for example, girls' quieter, less disruptive responses to challenges/problems are more in line with school environmental expectations, as opposed to boys' acting out. Kindlon and Thompson (2002) point out that boys struggle to meet the developmental and academic expectations of a reading/writing curriculum with a focus on verbal abilities, which are cognitive skills that tend to develop sooner with girls.

Despite these early struggles, Sadker (1999) says that boys are still assumed to be the winners of the gender gap division because they later receive higher scores on high-stakes tests and are viewed as more successful in the business world. The truth is that sexism harms both genders. Boys are stereotyped into less flexible gender roles than girls and at an earlier age. As they become older, males encounter social pressure not to appear "feminine" in occupations or interests, have fewer friends, and are more likely to encounter loneliness and alienation.

Does Gender Bias Shape Education?

Some controversy surrounds the role of teachers in counteracting gender stereotypes. Some feel that gender stereotypes are a product of the early rearing practices in the home environment and that schools should remain neutral, thus allowing students to develop their own gender identities. Others believe that challenging these stereotypes liberates children from gender restrictions (Gray & Leith, 2004).

In an ethnographic study of five males between the ages of 6 and 8, Keddie (2003) illuminates some dominant assumptions of early childhood educators that are specifically tied to their understanding of developmentally appropriate practices (DAP). She notes that a principal and a group of teachers accepted young boys' aggressive and disruptive behavior as a normal part of their development, rather than as problematic. Their reactions demonstrate that they truly believed these gendered behaviors were innocent, harmless, and just a naturally occurring or biologically inevitable part of being a boy. Keddie states that, pedagogically, teachers' perceptions of DAP encourage minimal intervention or questioning of these behaviors and thus validate/restrict masculine behavior. Ultimately, teachers' own perceptions of gender differences certainly influence how they treat and interact with their pupils.

Strategies To Make the Classroom a More Equitable Place

Teaching strategies that will help ameliorate gender bias, promote gender equity, and help meet the needs of individual learners in the classroom can be categorized into three areas: teacher-student interaction/ communication, instructional styles, and curriculum/ instructional materials (McCormick, 1994; Sanders, 2000). McCormick (1994) suggests some ways to counteract gender stereotyping in classroom instruction:

To maximize students' achievement and growth, the teacher needs to create a learning environment that is free of sex stereotyping in instructional organization, interactions, materials and activities. Along with their new book bags, pencils, and notebooks, children come to school armed with well-established sex-role stereotypes about "appropriate" female and male behaviors. (p. 74)

The following strategies will help teachers confront and minimize gender bias in the classroom by questioning commonly held beliefs about behavioral differences, segregation, expectations, and student-teacher interactions.

Teacher/Student Interactions

Student-teacher interactions encompass a plethora of activities and points of contact throughout the school day. Foremost, teachers should realize that interaction, by definition, means mutual influence. Teachers can recognize their own biases by reflecting 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. Accepting and celebrating distinguishing qualities from both sides of the spectrum may encourage androgynous behavior. Some specific ways to do this are:

1. Examine Your Own Classroom Behavior. Teachers are often unaware of gender bias in the classroom, especially because it may be subtle. This informal communication of certain gender attitudes is referred to as the "hidden curriculum." Videotapes of teaching episodes or colleagues' observations of behaviors are good starting points. Careful review will bring certain patterns to light and help teachers begin the reflection process. Figure 1 is a Gender Equity Quiz that teachers can use to self-assess.

2. Be Sensitive to Ways of Providing Feedback. Teachers treat and respond to students differently based upon their expectations of student performance, which may have a harmful effect on girls' academic and social achievement (McCormick, 1994). For example, Grayson (1987, cited in McCormick, 1994) notes that "effort" statements are used more often with males than females:

"Carlos, if you tried harder in this class, you could do it. You just need to put forth more effort! ..." "Maria, you had trouble with this homework, didn't you? Well, you tried! ..." Carlos is given the message that he has the ability, but is not using it. Maria is given the message that she doesn't have to work, because she doesn't have the ability. The message is that less is expected and accepted. (p. 56)

Boys generally receive more teacher consideration, acclamation, and constructive feedback than girls do. They are called on by name more often and are asked more complex and abstract questions than girls are. In the end, boys receive more precise attention (positive as well as negative), thus enhancing their performance. As a result, girls are prone to become the invisible and losing members of the classroom (Sadker, 2000, 2002). Classroom observation research suggests that the ways teachers praise, remediate, and criticize differ when they are interacting with boys and girls (Marshall & Reinhartz, 1997; Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

Boys tend to receive much more academically specific remediation, as well as praise and criticism. Girls receive less academically valuable, more superficial feedback (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Therefore, it is often better for teachers to keep a tone of neutrality when commenting on student performance (e.g., "Yes," "uh-huh," or "fine") (see Figure 2), rather than calling attention in a way that may perpetuate gender stereotypes.

3. Pay Attention to the Time Variable. Studies show that teachers typically wait only nine-tenths of a second for a student to answer a question (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Boys tend to jump right into the conversation by calling out answers and raising their hands more. If a teacher waits 3 to 5 seconds before calling on a student, girls benefit because they are more likely to take time to cognitively formulate their answers before verbalizing them.

Furthermore, giving everyone an equal opportunity is just as important. An observation of a graduate student doing a science lesson at a university laboratory school revealed that she would almost exclusively respond to boys shouting out. Girls, on the other hand, were reminded, "Please raise your hands if you want to answer." Sadker and Sadker (1994) observed that boys call out eight times more often than girls, and what they say often has little or nothing to do with the teacher's questions. They believe this system of silencing operates covertly and repeatedly, and that boys dominate classroom conversations because boys are expected to be active and girls to be inactive.

Teachers can monitor the type and frequency of these responses to both genders by being conscious of the amount of attention, either negative or positive, given to boys. This, in turn, could lead to a better awareness of girls and more time spent with them.

4. Monitor Language. While we pass on language to children as a necessary tool to function in society, we also pass on a "relative entrapment" in the social order; language, in a sense, defines children's potential as well as their boundaries (Davies, 1989). How teachers use language is critical because male and female identities are transmitted through it. The English language presents "maleness" as the standard. In her book Communicating Gender (1999), Suzanne Romaine says that many terms are attempts to construct what it means to be male or female, at times making stereotypes appear concrete. These words often are taken for granted rather than challenged. She also says that language is developed by men for men, and represents linguistic bias against women. Such generalizations as "Boys don't cry and girls don't fight" should be avoided. Teachers also should use such de-gendering terms as "police officer" and "firefighter" rather than "policeman" and "fireman."

5. Be an Appropriate Role Model. Demonstrate appropriate behavior in word and deed. Teachers also may practice gender-neutral reading of, and writing on, students' work. Do not praise girls only for the physical appearance or neatness of work; commend both girls and boys for their ability. Don't ignore sexist remarks made by children, but challenge them instead (Marshall & Reinhartz, 1997). Openly discuss fair and unfair treatment with your students and help them analyze and think about their own behaviors.

Instructional Styles

1. Working With Others. As important as the way in which teachers interact with students is whether or not their instructional styles match the students' learning styles. (Figure 3 is a list of Internet resources to help teachers learn more about gender-equitable behaviors and materials.) These styles address physical logistics as well as assessment. Although girls tend to learn-best when they work collaboratively and males learn best when challenged by peers or those they consider to be rivals, it is imperative that students be given ample opportunities to participate in both methods of learning (Marshall & Reinhartz, 1997). When girls are given opportunities to assume leadership roles, their confidence level increases and gender bias in the classroom decreases.

2. Assessment. Boys and girls score differently on tests in various areas of the curriculum. Research demonstrates that boys do better in math and science, perform better on high-stakes tests, and are subject to greater evaluation and more pressure to succeed (AAUW, 1999; Grayson & Martin, 1984). When assessing boys and girls in the classroom, teachers should strive to create instruments that have equal representation of gender roles or gender-role content. Teachers' judgments of children's achievement should not be based on gender expectations, but rather result from equal treatment and evaluation, using the same benchmarks. Teachers should set equal goals and try to have all students meet similar achievements. For example, boys should not be expected to do better on science experiments or projects that require hands-on construction. Likewise, girls should not be expected to do better on written assignments and art projects.

3. Segregation. Despite the tendency of young children to self-impose gender segregation (Stanford, 1992), teachers should avoid separating boys and girls by desk groupings or by pitting the boys against the girls when forming teams for classroom contests and projects. Such practice sends the message that there is a difference between the groups. Would you separate by other attributes, such as race, religion, or physical features? The message of same-gender grouping is that an important educational difference exists between the groups. A good way to desegregate elementary students is to change groups often and be flexible enough to allow students to form their own mixed groups. Louise Derman-Sparks (1989) cautions, however, that absolute reliance on younger children's own self-directed activities (e.g., during preschoolers' "free play") may actually restrict, rather than expand, development; young children limit their own participation in some key cross-gender activities. She offers such suggestions as having "everybody plays with blocks day" or a boys' art time or sewing activity.

By increasing mobility in the classroom, teachers ensure that girls and boys working together are benefiting from the experience. Teachers help reduce or solve conflicts and lessen the tendency of particular students to dominate discussions and limit contributions from others by walking around the classroom and monitoring students' behavior.

Analyze Instructional Materials

A number of analyses (Alpe, 1996; Gooden & Gooden, 2001; Murphy & Gipps, 1996; Prentice, 1986) have demonstrated that textbooks, basal readers, children's literature (even award-winning titles), and computer software continue to portray stereotyped gender-role behaviors, emotions, and occupations, and that they have more male characters (males are depicted more often than females in pictures, too). Gender role socialization is deeply influenced by these portrayals of males and females. These images help children form attitudes, beliefs, and gender-role identity.

1. Books. Teachers can help by selecting literature that shows nontraditional characters engaged in nonstereotypical behaviors, such as girls being brave and adventurous and boys being sensitive and nurturing. If it is not always possible to select these types, then the teacher should point out bias or encourage students to critically examine materials for gender bias (McCormick, 1994).

Two sources for selecting books that debunk gender stereotypes are Great Books for Girls and Great Books for Boys by Kathleen Odean. Kanfer (2000) cautions, however, about the "feminization" of books, noting the growth of books about "getting along" and the decline in adventure stories. She says, "The uncomfortable truth is that boy's books are too important to be left to mothers and librarians. Fathers need to get in on the act, because they understand boys and their needs" (p. 51).

2. Computers. Implementation of technology in the classroom appears to be occurring with little understanding of the differences in students' prior knowledge of technology and attitudes toward computers. Boys have more experience with and better attitudes toward computers than girls do (AAUW, 1999; Murphy & Gipps, 1996). This imbalance may be prevented if teachers avoid selecting sexist software that is typically "masculine" or "combative," and if they encourage girls to learn computer skills by not allowing boys to dominate the time spent in front of the computer terminals.


Teaching requires an obligation to question deeply rooted sexist attitudes and a willingness to use a variety of teaching strategies to help children understand that sexism and stereotypes have harmful personal and social effects and consequences. Teachers have the power to stop the damage that is done through the hidden messages that classroom bias creates. Teachers should strive to critically analyze their own attitudes and behaviors about gender roles. They also should scrutinize instructional materials and be more conscious of how they provide feedback to students. Teachers should not prescribe how children should act, but rather promote equal opportunities for both girls and boys.

In order to counteract deeply entrenched gender role stereotypes, the classroom community and school culture should encourage girls to be achievers, take chances, and be leaders. Boys should be permitted to be sensitive and caring and not be inhibited from expressing their feelings. A gender-neutral position practiced by teachers recognizes individual and group differences, and believes that both girls and boys can reach their fullest potential if they are sensitive to the quality and level of interaction they give to each gender. Imagine the possibilities! Perhaps the first female United States president is enrolled in your classroom and the action you take to promote gender equity will play a role in making this possibility a reality.


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Alpe, T. L. (1996). An analysis of gender representation in Caldecott award and honor books, 1972-1996. (Doctoral Dissertation, Mississippi State University, 1996). Dissertation Abstracts International, 57-04A, 16111.

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Bauer, K. S. (2000). Promoting gender equity in schools. Contemporary Education, 71(2), 22-25.

Bowman, D. H. (2000). Federal study finds gains in gender equity. Education Week, 19(34), 35-36.

Caporrimo, R. (1998). [Review of the book Gender differences in human cognition]. Sex Roles, 39(11/12), 943-946.

Chandler, P. S. (1994). The gender equity quiz. Learning, 22(5), 57.

Davies, B. (1989). Frogs and snails and feminist tales. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Derman-Sparks, L. (1989). Anti-bias curriculum: Tools for empowering young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Diller, A., Houston, B., Morgan, K. P., & Ayim, M. (1996). The gender question in education: Theory, pedagogy, & politics. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Gooden, A., & Gooden, M. (2001). Gender representation in notable children's books. Sex Roles, 45(1), 89-101.

Gray, C., & Leith, H. (2004). Perpetuating gender stereotypes in the classroom: A teacher perspective. Educational Studies, 30(1), 3-17.

Grayson, D. (1987). Gender/ethnic expectations and student expectations. A summary of the areas of disparity. Unpublished manuscript. Earlham, IA: GrayMill Foundation.

Grayson, D. A., & Martin, M. D. (1984). Gender expectations and student achievement: A teacher training program addressing gender disparity in the classroom. (ERIC Document Service Reproduction No. 243 829)

Gurian, M. (2001). Boys and girls learn differently. New York: Jossey-Bass.

Kanfer, S. (2000). Read 'em and weep. Men's Health, 15(2), 50-51.

Keddie, A. (2003). Little boys: Tomorrow's macho lads. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 24(3), 289-306.

Kindlon, D. J., & Thompson, M. (2002). Thorns among roses: The struggle of young boys in early education. In The Jossey-Bass reader on gender in education (pp. 153-181). New York: Jossey-Bass.

Lee, V. E. (1997). Gender equity and the organization of schools. In B. J. Banks & P. M. Hall (Eds.), Gender, equity, and schooling: Policy and practice (pp. 135-158). New York: Garland.

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Odean, K. (1997). Great books for boys. New York: Ballentine.

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Figure 1

Find out if your classroom is fair to both boys and girls by taking this gender equity quiz.

* Do I encourage cooperative learning in cross-gender groupings by mixing up the seating arrangement among girls and boys and by avoiding dividing students into single-gender activity groups ?

* Do I position myself in different areas in the classroom to encourage children to play and work in nontraditional ways?

* Do I balance my questions between girls and boys during class discussions by enforcing rules of speaking in turn, and do I call students by name to ensure equal response time?

* Do I give equal help and in-depth guidance to girls as well as boys?

* Do my expectations for academic achievements for girls and boys remain equal?

* Do I invite visitors with nontraditional occupations into the classroom?

* Do I discipline girls and boys with the same manner and frequency?

* Do I initiate or discuss gender concerns with students when gender equity situations occur in school?

* Do I encourage physical activity in nontraditional gender roles ? For instance, do I encourage girls to play football or boys to do handclapping games ?

* Do I word my tests in a gender-neutral fashion?

* Do I balance or rotate my assignment of leadership roles and supportive positions to both boys and girls?

* Do I balance other assigned classroom jobs (lifting or moving chairs and desks, cleanup, running errands) between both genders?

* Do I use books, computer programs, and other curriculum materials that are free of stereotyped gender-role behavior?

* Do I expose stereotyped gender-role behavior when I encounter it in curriculum materials? * Do I allow adequate time for problem-solving activities?

Adapted from Chandler, P. S. (1994). The gender equity quiz. Learning, 22(5), 57.

Figure 2

Types of Teacher Responses

Praise--Express favorable judgment: "Good job." "Joe, I really enjoyed reading your paper." A biased response: "This paper is wonderful, Samantha; your handwriting is so neat."

Remediation--Encourages a student to correct a wrong answer: "Check your last calculation, John." A biased response: "I will help you with that one in a minute, Sally; just move on to the next question for now." The assumption here is that the male can figure it out on his own and the female would need help.

Criticism--Categorical statement that something is not correct: "No, Connor, you didn't follow directions." A biased response: "Let's try doing this project again, Ann! I'll show tell you exactly what to do." Again, the assumption here is that the male can figure it out on his own and the female would need help.

Accepts--Offer fleeting acknowledgment that a student's answer is accurate: "Uh-huh" or "Fine." A biased response: "You boys keep getting these tough questions correct."

Adapted from Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness: How our schools cheat girls. New York: Scribner's Sons, p. 54.

World Wide Web Resources for Teachers

American Association of University Women

Equity-related links

ERIC documents regarding gender roles and gender stereotyping in children's literature

Teaching Tolerance magazine

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. Myra: David:

National Association for the Education of Young Children

Northwest Regional Education Laboratory

Timothy Frawley is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood and Elementary Education, Mercyhurst College, Erie, Pennsylvania
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Date:Jun 22, 2005
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