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What I Learned about Gender Roles in Education from Stephen Marche's "The Unmade Bed"

What I Learned about Gender Roles in Education from Stephen Marche's "The Unmade Bed"

Societal perceptions affect how we approach gender roles in education.

At the start of this year, I started working from home full-time and my husband became a stay-at-home dad. This new arrangement highlighted many issues in terms of gender, roles and responsibilities, and stereotypes, and it led me to appreciate a new book by social commentator Stephen Marche, The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century.

This is an especially compelling book for teachers because it addresses the way societal perceptions color our options, interests, and the way we approach gender roles in education.

The Educational Gender Bias We Overlook

Marche highlights an interesting area that is often neglected: how gender bias affects boys. One of the major impediments to boys receiving a fair education is the perceived need to "tame" them—a trend that Marche strongly feels should be discouraged. Research reveals that boys are often physical learners, which is an alternative learning style to the traditional "chalk and talk" method where students are expected to sit quietly and listen to the teacher.

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In a chapter about gender bias in schools, Marche describes how his own son is "physical, tribal, tender, restless, testing his limits," implying that this is the way boys have always behaved. What's changed, he argues, is the way we react and treat them. He asks educators to accept that "boyish nature" exists and doesn't need to be calmed or tamed in order for boys to learn.

Further reading: Supporting Girls in STEM 

Simultaneously, we must nurture the emotional needs of boys to help them develop empathy and emotional intelligence. I taught an all-boy fifth-grade class when I was pregnant, and I was constantly surprised by the gentle and thoughtful way they related to me as my pregnancy progressed. They made sensitive comments, considered my feelings and comfort (one boy fetched me a pillow after noticing I was rubbing my back), and took an interest in the new baby. For me, this experience highlighted the importance of treating students as individuals instead of pigeonholing them into stereotypical gendered roles.

Tips for Promoting Equality in the Classroom

There are many ways that teachers can help create a positive learning environment for all students. In classrooms, students shouldn't feel limited or confined by their gender; they should feel free to explore their interests and reach their full potential. I've found the following strategies to be the best ways to explore or combat gender roles in education.

  • Constantly self-evaluate your assumptions. Even as we set out to offer equal treatment and opportunities to all students, it's easy to fall prey to unconscious bias. It's a good idea to conduct regular self-audits. Keep track of the students you call on and see if you notice any patterns. You can also ask a mentor or colleague to observe your teaching and offer their opinion on whether you need to change up your questions, style, or explanations to treat all students fairly.
  • Cater to a range of learning styles. All learners, but boys especially, benefit from brain breaks and movement between activities. Girls, on the other hand, are often better at quietly completing tasks but have trouble taking risks as they learn because they've been told that the social norm expected of them is to listen quietly. (Marche argues that this tendency to be "people pleasers" has often limited women's role in the workforce.) Try to ensure that you offer activities that allow students to learn in a variety of different ways.
  • Mix group, paired, and independent work opportunities. Both boys and girls need opportunities to lead. Girls are often unfairly labeled as "bossy" when they show delegation skills. By alternating a range of groupings, you'll allow both introverted students and natural leaders to excel, regardless of their gender.
  • Don't rely on outdated stereotypes. Although Marche's commentary shows how men and women are fundamentally different, this actually stems more from social conditioning than biology. Every child is unique and different. Although boys are perceived to be more physical than girls, that shouldn't deter you from encouraging girls to learn in kinesthetic ways. At the same time, nurture boys' emotional needs and allow them to express their feelings and/or concerns.
  • Check your class books and resources for bias. Do they offer a fair representation of men and women in modern society? Do they uphold sexist or outdated stereotypes? Do they reflect the students' home lives? Update your class library regularly to ensure it adequately represents our world.

Further reading: Strategies to Stop Bullying in the Classroom

Teachers are at the forefront of enabling both boys and girls with the tools to excel in any subject or career they set their minds to. By boosting self-esteem, helping students develop strong interpersonal skills, and encouraging them to pursue career opportunities of interest, we can help create the inclusive future our kids deserve.