Challenging Gender Stereotypes

Women’s History Month, celebrated in March every year, provides an opportunity to reflect on the many contributions of women to society and to recognize the ongoing struggle for gender equality. Although we have made progress towards gender equality in a number of areas, including education, employment, and political representation, there is still a lot that needs to be done.

Women continue to face significant challenges, including gender-based discrimination, violence, harassment, and the gender pay gap, which also impacts female educators.

A recent report produced by Brown Center on Education Policy found that, while women account for roughly three quarters of the teaching workforce, gender wage gaps persist among teachers, with male teachers earning $2,200 more than female teachers of similar characteristics. 

Since I have two daughters, I often reflect on the messages that they hear about who they can be, the things they can (and cannot) accomplish or what they need to look like. From clothing design to media marketing, we continue to live in a society that perpetuates gender stereotypes.

As educators, we are not immune to these stereotypes. We may hold different expectations for our students based on their gender, even if unconsciously, and this may impact how we support students’ social and emotional growth and our expectations for how they express emotions.

“Not all emotions are created equal, and not everybody has the freedom to express the full range of emotions.”

Although boys are wired to tune in to their feelings just as much as girls, they tend to be discouraged from showing vulnerability or weakness. Boys are expected to show less of the tender emotions, such as sadness or anxiety, and they are encouraged to externalize emotions such as anger, contempt, or disgust—therefore, confirming societal gender roles for males to be assertive, individualistic, independent, and even aggressive, while girls are expected to hide their anger and be compassionate. This 3-min commercial from Always, the company that makes menstrual hygiene products, is a heartbreaking look at the stereotypes that still exist in our society about being a girl.

For nonbinary children, these expectations are especially harmful, as these children are often asked to conform to one or the other, instead of having the freedom to express the full range of human emotions. For additional resources, check out Gender Inclusive Classrooms.

How can SEL challenge gender stereotypes?

SEL can play an important role in challenging and addressing gender norms related to the expression of emotions. Educators can build awareness about these societal expectations and how they condition students to suppress or overexpress their feelings. Then they can work with students to explore the full range of emotions, so that students can feel free to express their feelings in and outside of the classroom, and question these norms.

  • Encourage emotional expression as part of your classroom culture: Provide students with a safe and supportive environment where they can express their emotions without fear of judgment or stigma. By encouraging emotional expression, SEL can help students to develop healthy emotional habits and break down gender norms that discourage boys from expressing their emotions, girls from overexpressing and nonbinary children from conforming to one or the other.
  • Support students (and yourself!) to challenge stereotypes: Promote and practice empathy and respect for diverse emotional experiences. By teaching students to recognize and value emotions in others, regardless of gender, SEL can help to break down stereotypes that associate certain emotions with masculinity or femininity. Work with students to question the messages they see and hear in marketing and media that reinforce stereotypes about gender and emotional expression, and together create counter messages.
  • Foster an emotionally inclusive environment: Students can learn to communicate and express emotions in a healthy and constructive way, regardless of gender. An emotionally inclusive environment is one that embraces a variety of emotional experiences and values diversity in emotional expression. Make sure that you model sharing your own emotional experience, so your students can feel comfortable doing the same.

Overall, SEL can help to challenge gender norms by promoting emotional expression, challenging stereotypes, and fostering emotionally inclusive classrooms. By doing so, SEL can create a more equitable and supportive learning environment for all students.

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