Teaching Gender Equality to Teens: A Lesson Planning Guide

Gender equality is a concept that has only been introduced into our educational lexicon in the last century. Title IX, the first federal legislation that disallowed discrimination in schools, was considered groundbreaking when it passed in 1972. Patriarchy was the norm in our recent past and the result was a culture where men held legal power over their families and domestic violence was rarely acknowledged.Title IX radically changed the world of education by challenging schools to eradicate gender bias in all areas of education — in sports, scholarship and admissions policies, to name a few. However, lingering and often unconscious gender bias still exists in classrooms.

Recent studies of school-aged children have shown that the effects of even the slightest gender discrimination are powerful. When Michigan elementary school students were asked to consider life as a member of the opposite sex, 40% of the girls reported that life would be better as a boy, citing more respect and better jobs. Conversely, 95% of the boys surveyed saw no advantage to being a girl. Sexual harassment, a more insidious form of discrimination, is still commonly reported in schools. During the 2010-2011 school year, more than 50% of girls and 40% of boys reported harassment in another study. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students faced far more severe discrimination, 85% reporting verbal abuse and 19% experiencing physical violence.

Unfortunately, the impact to students extends far beyond discomfort. Sexual harassment is a civil rights issue because students’ experiences deprive them of equal access to education. Gender bias in classrooms may also have a powerful effect on students’ perception of their future opportunities. The long-term effects are considered by some to lead to the wage gap between adult men and women in the workforce. Even more insidiously, students who have been victim to sexual harassment in the classroom are statistically more likely to engage in substance abuse and risky sexual behavior as they grow older.

Perhaps entirely unconsciously, girls and boys are often treated differently in learning environments. Boys benefit from more teacher attention, even if the attention is negative. Girls are encouraged to sit quietly and politely answer questions, whereas boys may not be disciplined for shouting out answers in class. Girls may be called by name less than boys are in class discussions, and boys may receive more detailed assistance in problem-solving than do girls. By high school, girls are less likely to be identified for gifted programs in math and science. In one study in 2007, gay and lesbian students who had experienced verbal and physical harassment were documented to have lower GPAs, a tendency to skip classes and fewer plans to go to college.

Fortunately, there is much that teachers and parents can do to combat gender bias and its long-term implications.Awareness is the first step, as many adults unknowingly enforce gender stereotypes. Researchers have created a body of suggestions that parents and teachers can follow.

  • Be fair in the classroom. Educators are encouraged to look carefully at displays in the classroom and examine them for bias. Splitting up boys and girls for activities and games is discouraged. In class discussion, teachers can prompt students in other ways than calling them by name, such as by pulling student names from a jar.
  • Examine your curriculum and materials for examples of successful men and women; supplement if necessary. Awareness of pronouns is vital; when discussing occupations or presenting storylines or math problems to students, educators should make a conscious effort to use “he” and “she” equally.
  • Select books carefully. Consider that what your children read can perpetuate bias, and encourage them to read books that include stereotype-busting storylines or include alternative lifestyle choices.
  • Accept that cultural differences may impact children’s views on gender. Tactfully approach these situations by enforcing the idea that while differing cultural backgrounds must always be respected, discrimination is not acceptable at school.
  • Encourage non-traditional choices. Girls must be allowed to take shop classes if they desire and boys should be encouraged to take home economics. As your children grow, offer them opportunities to explore all occupations equally, and resist the idea that a child’s gender may impact an ability to work in an area of interest.
  • Expectations for boys and girls academic achievement should be equal. Girls may be unintentionally taught learned helplessness when difficult academics are downplayed or, worse, done by parents for them. Use detailed and precise language when providing feedback to girls.
  • Research has shown that girls often think about the answer to a question for a few moments, while boys tend to answer immediately. Wait a few seconds after asking a question to give girls an equal chance to respond.
  • Create a learning environment that includes both cooperative and competitive activities; research has shown that boys learn best competitively and girls learn best in cooperative study groups.
  • Avoid traditional gender roles when assigning students chores. Teachers should encourage girls and boys to operate technology in the classroom, and parents can assign household chores equitably.

For further information, the following resources may be helpful for parents, students and educators.

Student Resources

  • Websites for Girls: The comprehensive site lists numerous resources for girls and about girls and women. Topics include games, electronic message board forums, book lists, health issues pertinent to young women, nonstandard career options and LBGT websites oriented to teens.
  • ACLU: The American Civil Liberties Union has created this space aimed toward gender-based violence and harassment. Explicit definitions, a downloadable educational PDF and contact information for reporting incidents are provided.
  • Gender Equity Resource Center: This site, developed by the U. California Berkeley faculty, offers educational aids and leadership programs for students. Services and resources focus on sexual and dating violence, hate crimes and the LGBT community.
  • Ms. Blog: An offshoot of Ms. Magazine, this blog offers first-person accounts of gender inequality at school and work. Writers discuss the personal affects and suggest methods to counter similar instances.
  • WordPress Blogs: This listing of blogs specifically devoted to gender equity issues offers viewpoints from writers around the globe.
  • Men Speak Up: A blog by male activists that seeks to call out specific acts of disrespect and misogyny in education, the media and the military. Comments and discussion are invited.

Parent and Educator Resources

  • Gender Equity Activities: Created by a school district in Alaska, this 22-page workbook is a great student activity resource. Guidance on activities, self-quizzes and explanatory scenarios are provided for educators to explore occupations and gender bias.
  • The Myra Sadker Foundation: This not-for-profit organization offers comprehensive reading and research on topics related to eliminating gender bias in schools. Scholarships, grants for teachers and students and doctoral dissertation awards are also available.
  • See Jane: Operated by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, this website explores research in the media and entertainment industry about gender bias and its presentation. Downloadable research and a weekly newsletter are provided.
  • The Ophelia Project: Looking for training about gender bias and relationship aggression in your school or workplace? The Ophelia Project offers in-service training, workshops and seminars to students, teachers and employers who want to achieve a safe social climate.
  • National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education: This not-for-profit organization offers leadership and advocacy toward improved educational experiences for girls in school. Current events, pertinent federal legislation and links to numerous other resources are provided.
  • Downloadable lesson plans and educational tools developed by grade level are provided here. This resource helps children and teachers explore concepts of body image, social justice, stereotyping and bullying.
  • Gender, Diversities & Technology Institute: Papers, presentations, links to digital libraries and lesson plans for the classroom focusing on practical ways for educators to practice and teach gender equality.
  • Gender Inequality: This book chapter breaks down the sociological issues of gender equity in a highly detailed and easy-to-understand format. Classroom projects are suggested to help communicate these issues to students.
  • Beginning Origins of Gender Inequality: Insightful research data from University of Chicago discusses the interpretation of current gender inequality in schools today, and explores parent and teacher contributions.
  • UNICEF: The non-profit charity has compiled this collection of teacher resources, including units, lesson plans, videos, multimedia, and stories intended to raise student awareness of gender equality.
  • Vision2020 Educator’s Guide: Complete lesson plans, activity suggestions and companion materials for grades K-12 are available. Provided as part of a gender equality initiative by Drexel University, this 95-page guide can be a valuable classroom resource.
  • Working with Transgender Students: This downloadable PDF aims to help educators address the very specific needs of transgender students.

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