America has been thinking about gender a lot lately. From the 2016 presidential election and the first female candidate of a major party, to language and laws pertaining to transgendered individuals, to the gathering voices and explosive shock waves of the #MeToo movement, sex and gender have become daily topics of discussion in the news, on social media, and in our homes.

Debates about men, women and power are not new, of course. As societies we’ve grappled with the rights, responsibilities and limitations given to or put on individuals, especially upon women by men, for centuries. As we march toward the third decade of the 21st century, many people are rightly asking why a truly equitable society continues to elude us. The reasons are, of course, myriad, and change is unlikely to come quickly and certainly not from any one solution. But we know that the classroom is a crucial locus for any type of cultural shift.

The field of education is an area that is in many ways ahead of other parts of our society in terms of equity and opportunity for girls and women. Seventy-six percent of American school teachers are women and more than 50% of k-12 principals are. By a number of measures, girls are surpassing boys’ achievements in school. They have higher GPAs in high school, are attending and graduating from college in higher numbers, and are expelled from school in far smaller numbers than boys are.  But that doesn’t mean girls don’t face barriers at school. Teachers and parents too often have lowered expectations for girls and may hold stereotypes about their abilities. Girls are often discouraged from pursuing studies and careers in key fields, are silenced in the classroom, and simply overlooked. These biases are further compounded by beliefs individuals may hold about female students based on their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. Girls of all classes, races and ethnicities are particularly affected by negative biases against them in STEM fields, a finding confirmed in numerous studies ranging from middle school math teachers’ grading of boys’ and girls’ tests to the hiring preferences of professors.

It is important to note that most of these biases are invisible even to those who hold them.  Many are held by women and girls themselves, as they internalize both overt and subtle messages about their abilities and limitations as females. We argue that what may be most important in schools today as teachers and administrators try to combat these stereotyped expectations of girls (and of boys as well) is to include active gender consciousness in the classroom. Gender consciousness means recognizing that gender is a crucial part of any individual’s identity. What’s more, gender is present in every interaction we have as social beings. Gender is, by definition, a combination of acts that one performs, and of judgments and expectations by those one encounters, that conform to a particular society’s definition of “man” or “woman.”

My colleagues and I have worked with hundreds of teachers in dozens of schools, and I can honestly say that almost every one of them was truly working to help all of their students succeed. Too often, however, any honest conversation about, or even recognition of, gender, is absent in the classroom. Being gender conscious means that a teacher recognizes that gender is at play throughout the school day—in how students interact with their teachers, with their peers, and with their own sense of self. It is ever present as they learn, whether they are completing a challenging geometry proof, writing of a sonnet, or reading about the Boston Tea Party. Being gender conscious means being aware that students’ journeys through the educational system are mediated in many ways by their genders.

By making sure that all of their students have opportunities to have a voice in the classroom, by considering the curriculum and its inclusivity, and by allowing students to access their own identities through choice and personal expression in some projects or class discussions, teachers can go a long way to counteracting negative gender stereotypes that continue to impede gender equity.

-Shannon Andrus January 28, 2017

Want to read more about our thoughts on gender consciousness? Check out our blog post, “Bringing Gender Consciousness in the Classroom” in the Penn Graduate School of Education’s Educator’s Playbook Newsletter.”