Confronting Gender Bias at School

A toolkit helps educators spur conversation, fight stereotypes, and build leadership skills in teen girls

September 8, 2015
Gender Bias

Following a new report that found disconcerting levels of gender bias among teen boys, teen girls, and even the mothers of teen boys and girls, HGSE’s Making Caring Common project has now released a toolkit for educators [PDF] who want to spur discussion about gender stereotypes and discrimination in their school communities.

The toolkit offers questions and activities to help middle- and high school students begin to notice and confront gender bias. These can be challenging conversations, says MCC co-director and HGSE senior lecturer Richard Weissbourd, the lead author of the report. “For some young people, this is a very personal topic that brings up questions of equality and privilege. Some of them may question whether gender biases even exist,” he says. “And the idea that biases can be implicit or unconscious is something many teenagers may never have thought of before.”

But by allowing young people to explore these ideas, educators can foster empathy and encourage (and empower) students to see themselves as problem-solvers who have an active role to play in creating a classroom culture that includes and supports every one of their peers.  

A Focus on Girls

The MCC’s report, called Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases [PDF], suggested that despite the gains that women have made in professional and political life, teen girls face a powerful barrier to leadership: the biased perceptions held by their own peers. In a survey of nearly 20,000 students, the report found that 23 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys preferred male political leaders to female. Only 8 percent of girls and 4 percent of boys preferred female political leaders.

And in terms of students’ preferences for leadership on their school’s student council, students overall were least likely to support giving additional power to the student council when it was led by white girls, and most likely to support giving more power when the council was led by white boys. The report also found that mothers’ average level of support was higher for a student council led by boys than one led by girls.

Resources for Teachers

The Educator Toolkit offers a path to navigate all this by leading students through a series of 10 questions based on their reading of the Leaning Out report.

After discussion, educators can:

  • Have teens interview each other across gender and racial groups about their aspirations for leadership of various kinds. Have them write a report or present what they find. Ask them to consider:
    • If you could be a leader, what would you want to be a leader of? Why?
    • What obstacles might you face and how might you overcome them?
  • Have teens participate in a series of reflective writing exercises about what is it like to be a girl, or, for boys, what they think it must be like). Try the same activity asking students to reflect on what it is like to be a boy. Allow them to share their writing, if they feel comfortable.
  • Challenge teens to think about how gender roles have continued to evolve over time. Invite them to interview a person of a different generation. How were women treated when they were growing up? Has society changed its expectations of women? What challenges do women still face today?

The toolkit also presents three case studies — stories about a teen girl, a teen boy, and a high school guidance counselor — that describe scenarios of bias and discrimination that are common in many high schools.

There are discussion questions about each case, along with tips for teachers on how to overcome potential obstacles to a constructive and engaging discussion with high schoolers.

Finally, the toolkit includes an easy-to-use guide to help parents and educators find high quality girls’ leadership programs. In addition to listing effective programs, it outlines the components of those programs, including:

  • career exploration and opportunities to meet female leaders in various fields
  • development of skills like public speaking, networking, and problem-solving
  • collaborative project experiences
  • mentorship and peer leadership opportunities
  • opportunities for girls to work on  projects that are meaningful to them, with high expectations attached

Additional Resources

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