Building Gender-Responsive Learning Environments

As our world is becoming more aware of social injustice, a topic of relevance is gender equality and inclusion. Can schools become a place to learn, build and live gender inclusion? Let's discuss some perks, challenges, and advice about it!

“You fight like a girl!” said the voice of a small kid while making fun of his peer because of his apparently obvious lack of strength outside of school. And a question came to my mind: what does ‘fight like a girl’ mean? Is fighting like a girl a synonym for weakness? Why? Examples like this, apparently inoffensive, reflect a deeper problem: a generalized belief that certain genders are more privileged than others.

Besides all modernization in different social and technological aspects, gender disparity is still visible in our society: the distribution of women in leadership roles, in STEM careers, or with higher salaries than men are a few examples of these disparities. And school is not only a place where these disparities are also seen. Schools are sometimes the place where these stereotypes and gender-based prejudices get reinforced in the mindsets of children and teenagers, who later become adults with conscious – and even unconscious – gender bias. Fortunately, schools are also a great place to change this narrative and the future of this situation. And this requires important structural changes in education. 


What Is Gender-Responsive Pedagogy and Why Does It Matter?

Among the 2030 Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all. And some of the targets pursued within SDG 4 – such as targets 4.2 and 4.5 – are explicitly oriented to gender equality and reduction of disparities. This shows how important the roles of schools, teachers, students, and caretakers are to building a gender-responsive society.

In this frame, educational researchers have suggested several pedagogical levels to board gender issues at school:

  • Gender-blind pedagogy: At this level, teachers and students are not able to acknowledge the unequal opportunities or barriers created by gender roles and discrimination. Under this level, it is common to find teachers and students believing that disparities between males and females are – somehow – justified by their biological differences.
  • Gender-neutral pedagogy: At this level, learners of all sexes are treated in the same way. It avoids gendered language. However, traditional gender roles are not questioned or analyzed, so they are still normalized. 
  • Gender-responsive pedagogy: At this level, the effects of gender norms, roles, and relations are considered and questioned by teachers and students. Gender-responsiveness recognizes that it is necessary to live a more active role to promote anti-biased attitudes and behaviors which can perpetuate gender disparities in and outside the classroom. Beyond making these biases visible, the active participation of boys and girls is constantly encouraged.

These pedagogies are not merely methodologies, but rather are more a behavioral pattern implicit in the teaching methods and in the culture of schools and classrooms. And as such, these patterns need to be built from the individuals to all levels of the educational system.


From Unconscious Bias to Equality in Practice

At an individual level, being aware of our conscious and unconscious biases is crucial, because they define how our attitudes, beliefs, and behavior are reflected towards other people or situations. 

Conscious bias involves biased attitudes that you are aware of. You are conscious of your thoughts and beliefs regarding certain topics. For example, if you prefer dark chocolate rather than white chocolate, then you are more likely to say that white chocolate tastes bad. If you are aware of this bias, you can try both types of chocolates and recognize that it is a matter of preference. Something similar happens to other biases we have in our minds. But conscious bias can be easily controlled when you are aware of them.

Unconscious bias refers to biased attitudes which you are not fully aware of, and thus operate outside your control. For example, some people assume that a person is successful if they have more possessions, such as cars or houses. If a person is unconsciously biased about this, then they can develop certain attitudes toward people who have or do not have such belongings. As it is unconscious, these attitudes are not voluntary. Instead, these behavioral attitudes will arise unconsciously, until they become aware of this bias.

A similar dynamic happens with gender bias. Most of the time, gender biases are unconscious and people are not aware that they perceive and have different attitudes toward men than women. Therefore, it is important to support awareness of unconscious gender biases and stereotypes, in order to start changing behaviors and attitudes contributing to gender disparity in a classroom.


Orientations and Practical Ideas to Promote Gender-Responsive Learning

Transforming systems toward gender equality is complex. These three pieces of advice can be useful to start this transition toward more gender-responsive learning environments:

  • Self-reflection: Supporting educators in becoming aware of their own unconscious bias regarding gender differences is very important, because these biases will be reflected in their pedagogical practice, and can result in a proliferation of negative or positive attitudes toward gender differences.
  • Transitioning to gender-responsive pedagogies: Parallel to self-reflection and attitudinal change, it is important that school policies, procedures, and pedagogical plans center on gender-responsiveness as a transversal axis for the learning outcomes. There are several resources with interesting examples of how other educators around the world have implemented teaching techniques to reduce gender gaps in their schools, such as this policy brief generated by VVOB in early childhood education, or this toolkit developed by UNICEF for gender-responsive teaching practices.
  • Physical adaptations for equal participation of boys and girls: Beyond the classroom, infrastructure should reflect that a school is an adequate place for boys and girls equally. This also includes the restrooms, which should be a healthy place that promotes the menstrual health of girls. 
  • Classroom management: Setting a class culture that promotes respect and equal participation and learning matters. This includes establishing rules for respectful interaction between boys and girls, and assertively managing the way every student refers to each other regarding their differences. Ensuring equal participation is also important. For example, the seat distribution in a classroom can be strategically thought out to ensure that boys and girls can interact with each other in the classroom, and to ensure that girls can speak up and share opinions that will be fully respected.


Building gender-responsive learning environments is not something easy to achieve, but initial efforts are urgent to ensure that future generations develop mindsets and attitudes focused on equality and respect. Starting with the individual conscious and unconscious bias, and then making structural changes in our learning environments will promote this transition. And fortunately, there are increasing efforts in research regarding gender-responsiveness in education, which can be helpful to integrate and contextualize in our schools and classrooms.



Photo: Studio Romantic/Shutterstock


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