Monday, October 19, 2015

Why Gender Discussions Matter

Here’s the simple truth...Gender and biology are not one in the same.  This notion is incomprehensible to many, but at the same time essential for people to understand. Take my parents for example: they are in their early sixties and moderately progressive in their ideas and opinions.  However, they were dumbstruck by Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transformation.  They simply could not fathom that a biological man could feel inherently like a woman and take the necessary steps to changing that identity.  To my parents, gender is synonymous with biological sex.  I tried talking to them about gender “scripts” and how “biology is merely one prop, albeit it a crucial one, supporting the larger performance” (100).  Unfortunately, they weren’t too keen on these ideas, and we ended up agreeing to disagree on the subject.  What my parents couldn’t seem to understand is that Caitlyn Jenner changed her script by “modifying and breaking out of it which takes extraordinary acts of insight and courage” (100).   

Gender scripts are so ingrained in our culture, and we constantly utilize these scripts to define our “maleness” or our “femaleness.”  I think the first step to having gender discussions with our students should be acknowledging that gender is not based solely on a person’s sex and that a lot of what we think we know about gender is deeply internalized through traditional gendered norms.  

Gender norms and stereotypes affect and limit both boys and girls.  It’s difficult to be an adolescent girl, and it’s difficult to be an adolescent boy.  [As a woman and a feminist, I might argue that it is more difficult to go through life as a female; however, for my purpose here I want to talk about the difficulties as I’ve noticed in my own students (male and female) and my own children (female and male).]  Nakkula argues that schools are gendered spaces, and that these gendered spaces can be limiting.  Even names schools and teachers use to label students are drenched in gender scripted language.  “‘Ophelia’s,’ ‘queen bees and wannabees,’ ‘odd girls out,’ ‘lost boys,’ ‘bad boys,’ ‘real boys,’ and ‘super predators’ remain dominant monikers for the gendered way in which educators are taught to frame youth identities and behaviors” (105).  Students are constantly labeled in gender specific language, and it is so entrenched in our collective memories that we might not even realize we are using this type of language.  I’m sure I’ve called some of my students (not to their faces necessarily) “bad boys” or “queen bees” without even realizing the gender implications of those names.  Since taking Dr. Bogad’s class last semester, I am definitely more aware of times when I label students as having specific gender roles, and I am trying to change some of these habits in my classroom.  I am also trying to have more regular conversations about gender as part of classroom discussions.  

In terms of my own children, Gwen and Zach, I have noticed how gender expectations have limited them in certain ways.  For example, Gwen was placed in all honors and advanced placement classes in middle and high school except for math.  As I am thinking about gender, I’m now questioning whether she actually struggled with math (as I always assumed) or if her placement was (subconsciously) due to her gender.  “Girls are highly underrepresented in advanced placement math and and science classes” (105).  There’s nothing I can do about this now in terms of Gwen considering she’s in college, but I can certainly look at my own students and encourage girls to try and push their way into those classes.

In terms of my son Zach, I also see some of the limitations gender scripting has placed on him.  He, as a male, cannot appear vulnerable enough for fully engaged learning to take place.  He feels pressure to “measure up,” “be tough” and “be a real man” (112).  These gender specific norms can be difficult and unrealistic for any male to live up to, but it becomes even more difficult when learning is to take place because true learning requires a sense of vulnerability.  “Learning-fully engaged learning-requires vulnerability.  It requires the capacity to leave oneself open to criticism and to willingly seek and provide support.  These are not ‘masculine traits,’ which is why for so many boys, particularly from late elementary school onward, ‘school learning’ is seen as the educational terrain of girls.” (113).  I’ve seen this play out in Zach.  I often think he is not truly and completely engaging in the learning process because he is afraid of looking weak or unsure.  I am doing the best I can to make him more comfortable, but again, the gender script is there and subconsciously playing out in his actions.


  1. Melissa - It's a unique perspective that you have as a classroom teacher and a mom to a boy and girl. I'm curious what types of conversations you have had with Gwen and Zach about gender identity...and their responses too (and how those have maybe seeped into your classroom discussions). As a woman, do you identify more with Gwen? Do you compare Gwen to your other female students? I guess I'm curious about how our ideas about gender in one context affect our ideas about gender in others...

  2. Melissa, that's so interesting. My parents, too, were very much opposed to even the idea of a biological male identifying as female (and vice versa), and our conversation about it brought up echoes of the past, when they uttered phrases such as, "that's not what a lady does" to me and "toughen up, be a man" to my brother. I, too, noticed huge differences in the ways we were treated, albeit I was the first-born and the first to go through things in a country and culture that was different from the one they had grown up in and were familiar with, so I'm sure that played a small part as well. But going to the school dance and then out with friends after was a huge debate (just talking to my dad about going to the dance was enough to cause me anxiety), while for my brother he was encouraged to go and have fun and even to go out afterwards. These differences were noticeable when I went to college (I was STRONGLY encouraged to stay home and work while going to school) and when David went to college (he was encouraged to get out of the house and live at school). I could go on and on, but truthfully, I wonder now how this will affect both of us as we get older and have our own children. I know that as a teacher, I try to provide for my students an opportunity to explore and discuss things that they might not be able to at home (I could NEVER have had a discussion about a transgender person growing up in my house), and to provide a safe space for those who are struggling to figure out who they want to be from day to day.

  3. There are so many conflicts that I see between the messages that adolescents/adults get on a daily bases about gender, gender identities and gender roles. One article you posted shows how though the work place is filled about 50-50 now with males and females that the science/field only has 26% female employment. Another article said starting in middle school boys begin to disengage in education because it is seen as sissy, or school is seen as a girls realm. It is all so complicated and complex.

  4. Melissa, you stated "Students are constantly labeled in gender specific language, and it is so entrenched in our collective memories that we might not even realize we are using this type of language." I agree here. Since taking Dr. Bogad's class, I am forever thinking about the language I say to students. I do not want to limit anyone. I remember the one scenario I had with students about gender and sexuality and feel like I could have handled it differently. This made me more in tuned to how I need to stay 'gender neutral' and not to impose the social construction of gendered roles/beliefs. It is challenging because we need to be careful of what we say and what students need to hear from us.

  5. Melissa
    Your links were excellent, I thought the information in each was right on target, and expands what we covered in the text for this week. Although I think we would all like to believe that we do not reinforce traditional gender roles and expectations, in reality, if all of us in the ASTL cohort spent 100% of our time rallying against them, we would still fall far short of the messages our students get through the media and society at large. I think what we can do is provide some balance, and some counter-intel for our students (and too) and demonstrate some acceptance and understanding, especially when it is challenging. Our job descriptions and contracts do not include lines items for life coach, role model, morality development, etc, but maybe they should.