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Create an Inclusive Learning Environment that Eliminates Gender Stereotyping

As a middle school English Language Arts teacher, part of my teacher soul dies inside every time I see elementary schools using DIBELS or other similar reading programs that use nonsense words to teach phonics-based reading and timed reading tests to stress speed over accuracy. Intentionally or unintentionally, these programs teach young learners that reading fast is more important than reading well. Students using these programs learn that decoding is infinitely more important than comprehension. While teachers in primary and intermediate grades may not see the long-term effects of these programs, every middle school and high school teacher sees them when students make decoding errors and just keep reading instead of stopping to repair meaning. Thanks to nonsense words and an emphasis on reading fast, teens who make reading errors just keep going and going – like the Energizer Bunny – rather than thinking, “That sentence didn’t make sense; I need to go back and fix my reading so that sentence makes sense.” The older the student, the more difficult it is to unteach ineffective practices and replace them with effective skills.

Gender stereotyping is similar. Like poor reading practices, what is and isn’t acceptable and appropriate for girls and boys to do or to be interested in becomes so ingrained and automatic that it’s extremely difficult to “unteach and reteach” later, when students are older and stereotypes and expectations are so entrenched they are either limiting, painful, or both. Sadly, this often leads to hobby and career choices that do not match individual strengths and interests. More importantly, gender stereotyping (and ingraining) – overtly, subliminally, intentionally, or unintentionally – results in sexism in teen years and beyond, and it’s REALLY difficult to unteach sexism and reteach acceptance, empowerment, and broad-mindedness.

Our students are bombarded every day with media messages that convey gender stereotyping. Current research says toys and clothes are more gendered now than they have been at any time in the past, when gender stereotyping, discrimination, and sexism were more of the societal norms. Toys, clothes, books, and tv shows that are marketed to girls prominently feature pretty pink princesses and an emphasis on homemaking, while marketing to boys features industrial or skills-oriented toys and muscular super heroes and action figures. Ads for Easy Bake Ovens still feature purples, pinks, and girls baking cupcakes while ads for Queasy Bake Ovens are filled with blues, greens, and boys conducting science experiments. This gendered marketing is still prominent in the 'tween and teen sectors. Teen girls are told they can be anything, but their "anything" is still portrayed as beautiful, sexy, and pink, while teen boys are bombarded with male figures that are brawny, powerful, and usually blue.

Stereotyping-that-leads-to-sexism is just as common in our language as it is in our media. When studying primary source documents or reading classic literature, students quickly learn that the terms men, mankind, and he are to be interpreted to include all people. Even today, all first-year high school and college students are referred to by the gender-biased term "freshmen."  While recent texts are certainly more inclusive in wording, gender bias is still strong in our language. While adult males are often referred to as dudes or bros, implying assertive, masculine roles, adult females are frequently referred to as "girls" -- implying passive, immature, child-like roles. Synonyms for females are much more sexualized than synonyms for their male counterparts. In fact, while our language includes around 20 sexualized terms for males, we have well over 200 sexualized terms for females. We also have many more derogatory and demeaning terms for girls and women than we do for boys and men. Even our adjectives tend to be gender-biased. While males are often described a ambitious, driven, or assertive, females with the same qualities are described as bossy, abrasive, or aggressive. When was the last time you heard a male described as feisty, frigid, or frumpy -- or curvy, ditsy, or sassy?

How can teachers counter-balance these cultural messages in our classrooms and intentionally create learning environments that are more inclusive?

First and foremost, teachers should be at the forefront of awareness and intentionality about the words we use and the ideologies our words convey. We should also be at the forefront of learning better and doing better. That’s not about political correctness . . . it’s about respect, dignity, and valuing each individual student for their humanity rather than their masculinity or femininity. There’s nothing wrong with being masculine or feminine; however, there’s a whole lot wrong with the expectation to be one or the other based on one’s gender, and a whole lot wrong with the sexist ideologies so often normalized and internalized as a result.

Here are some concrete ways teachers can create a learning environment that is more inclusive and eliminates gender stereotyping:
  • Instead of dividing your class or groups by gender, use other, more creative ways to divide groups.
  • Instead of using pinks or pastels to indicate femininity (or girls’ tasks and activities) and blues or primary colors to represent masculinity (or boys’ tasks and activities), use a variety of colors for all genders.
  • Instead of using gender-specific descriptors such as firemen, policemen, mailmen, and chairmen, use more inclusive terms, such as firefighter, police officer, mail carrier or postal worker, and chairperson. 
  • Instead of using masculine-biased terms for groups of people, such as, “You guys” or “fellow teachers,” use gender-neutral terms, such as “you all” or “teaching colleagues.”
  • To the greatest extent possible, avoid texts, activities, and worksheets that promote gender bias and stereotyping (including in graphics). When you notice these subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) messages, talk about them with students -- and why they are erroneous.

Gendered language tends to favor power imbalances, with males and masculine terms holding greater power. Being intentional about breaking gender stereotypes and using gender-neutral language that respects diverse identities, is inclusive, and promotes an unbiased balance of power encourages all students to break gender stereotypes and ingrained sexism and to be more inclusive and intentional with their own language.

Walt Whitman was once asked to name the ugliest word in the English language. Almost without hesitation, he answered, “Exclusion.” Modeling inclusive language for our students is one way we can teach them to be more accepting, empathetic, and inclusive, and portray the possibility that both genders can explore and develop wide ranges of interests and skills  – a win-win for them now and in their futures . . .  afterall, our words become our destinies!

Click here or on the image below to download this free quote analysis worksheet for your students ...

. . . and visit the blogs below for more ideas about practical and meaningful ways to integrate empowerment, equity, and empathy in your classroom today!

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