Gender neutrality in schools can have an impact on the wellbeing and attainment of all pupils.
The idea has shot to prominence due to press panic about the implications when, really, a growing body of experts from around the world are highlighting the benefits of gender neutrality not just on transgender pupils but on the wider student body.
Sweden has a longstanding record in combating gender inequality. Since 1998, schools have been tasked with battling it and this has led to some schools implementing gender neutral policies. An examination of these environments in 2015 found that they reduced gender favouritism and stereotyping.
Similarly, in Turkey, a country where gender equality may not seem to be a priority, a British Council-supported study focused on the importance of teachers showing that boys and girls were equal in the classroom.
To get started, here are some simple ways you can encourage gender neutrality within your classroom and school.
1. Gender neutral uniform policies
According to figures offered in Westminster in February, 150 schools across the country have implemented gender neutral uniform policies.
While this is seen as a contentious issue for certain elements of the press, it has purely practical applications in schools as it promotes the idea of equality between the genders.
2. Pay attention to language
It’s very easy for a teacher or school leader to fall into traditional stereotypes of children.
For instance, if you’re looking for pupils to help move some chairs, you might ask for ‘strong boys’ to help you, probably because it’s more likely to get results. However, it may reinforce subconscious stereotypes and hinder girls from getting involved.
On the reverse side, saying that you’re going to create some ‘pretty’ patterns in a textile class may reinforce the idea that textiles are only for girls.
When talking about people with your students, try to use ‘they’ and ‘their’ instead of gender-specific pronouns. Get them into the habit of using gender-neutral pronouns in discussions and when completing assignments.
Training yourself to use gender neutral language may be tricky, but it can stop you accidentally reinforcing gender stereotypes.
3. Use positive reinforcement
Altering your own language to be gender neutral is the first step towards an equal classroom but then you need to combat the language used by pupils amongst themselves.
If they say something along the lines of “girls can’t play football” or “boys shouldn’t like dolls”, a quick sentence challenging this can make the difference.
Explain the misconceptions behind this kind of erroneous statement and demonstrate that they are not only factually incorrect but that they also enforce gender stereotypes that can harm the development of individuals.
4. Offer equal opportunities
One way that schools have traditionally yet unintentionally remained segregated is through the extra-curricular opportunities offered to pupils.
Too often, there is a boys’ rugby team but nothing for the girls. Similarly, you might have a book club that attracts all girls because the notion of reading for fun isn’t promoted as much amongst boys.
Also, when discussing career opportunities with secondary students, remember to be inclusive and not limit potential career paths to specific genders.
Schools need to implement a comprehensive strategy to tackle these issues but, as a teacher, you can do your bit by highlighting the problem to senior leaders and parents.
5. Don’t allow classroom segregation
If allowed, boys are more likely to choose to sit with boys while girls will prefer to sit with girls. By ensuring that both boys and girls sit together, you’re relaying the message that there is no gender division within your classroom and that all students are considered equal.
They may not like the seating arrangements but, over the year, they’ll be exposed to a mix of views that may well challenge their stereotypical notions of gender.