Are We Still Guilty of Gender Stereotyping?

A self-assessment survey for teachers, childcare workers, and others

Ted, a 32-year-old math teacher, meets up with Jack, a 38-year-old PE teacher and Joyce, a 28-year-old science teacher in the hall on the first day of school. As they were discussing the recent departure of Debbie, the former school librarian, Ted suddenly notices Joan, the new librarian, coming up from the office. He turns to Jack and says, “That’s the little girl who took Debbie’s place.”

Clara, the school aide, sticks her head into Alice’s fifth-grade classroom and announces, “I need two boys to come and pick up your DVDs and paints in the office.”

Bob has his third graders out for a game of kickball. Joey begins to cry after striking out for the third time. Bob turns to him, scowling, “C’mon, Joey. Take it like a man.”

I first created this survey in the early 1980s. I had recently left the classroom and these three actual experiences were still very fresh in my mind. Thirty-some years later, I came across a copy I had filed away, hoping perhaps that this document would serve as a bit of a time capsule, filled with long-dead anachronisms by this point in our history. Unfortunately, I not only still see examples of gender stereotyping in schools and families, but at times, it seems we’ve gone backward, retreating to an era before we started noticing how prevalent— and limiting— these biases were. Having just posted a blog on appreciating diversity, I thought I might throw this piece back into the mix.

Initially, much of the language and many of the concepts in this document were fairly new to the cultural lexicon. Casting a woman in a traditionally male role on TV was considered ground-breaking, even more so if represented by a woman of color. The term “Ms.” was often trivialized, or used with sarcasm or contempt, if it was used at all. Arguments for equality, meant only to eliminate obstacles and limitations based on gender, were often countered with hysteria about unisex bathrooms or women being drafted out of a maternity ward while still in labor.

Now I do understand that the brain likes to classify all sorts of things, and from a neurological perspective, there is a certain simplicity (as well as a good bit of neural and cultural laziness) in assigning roles and expectations to individuals based on external characteristics. But I’ve also seen how debilitating these messages can be, and having grown up with all the usual 1950s and 60s conditioning, I had hurdles to clear that, thankfully, many young women don’t face today. While I have met many young people who aspire to what feels like traditional roles and practices, I do believe that suggesting that route as their only option would be perceived as patently absurd.

And while I would hope that very few young women would still be hearing that the purpose of college is to get an M-R-S degree (which I heard throughout my childhood), encounter bewilderment at their pursuit of advanced degrees (as did I), or be advised that women are emotionally unequipped to build or run a business (which was suggested to me many times before I officially launched my company in 1983), I still see too many young girls playing down their intelligence and dismissing an inclination toward achievement (especially in math, science, and technology). So there are still gaps in how girls are taught and socialized, and where their confidence and aspirations are reinforced and encouraged, with pressures and expectations for boys (to be physically strong, emotionally controlled, athletically competent, and especially good in certain areas of the curriculum, for example) that are likewise limiting and, in some cases, actually dangerous.

In the first version of this article, I noted that teacher training and inservice programs that attempted to address the problem of gender equity by drawing attention to sex-role stereotyping in children’s literature and basals. “However, purging library shelves of descriptions of shirtwaisted housewives, men with their briefcases, and passive little girls watching active little boys would hardly remedy negative messages that teachers can convey to students through their language, behavior, and expectations,” I wrote.

This type of discrimination is subtle and insidious, although probably less often deliberate and malicious than simply the result of mindless habits, patterns that evolve from lifelong socialization and media reinforcement. Even in the most conscious and liberated environments, supported with legislation meant to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender, traditional values and attitudes can die a slow death. True change, I noted, involves a process of awareness first, then commitment and planning, and finally practice.

I developed the original version of this instrument for use with student teachers and first-year teaching interns as an informal self-assessment of personal tendencies toward stereotyping and discriminatory behavior in the classroom. Many of the examples were drawn from patterns and incidents I had observed in my visits to schools, my work with beginning teachers and their mentors, interactions with parents over the years, and from my own time in the classroom. Preferred answers were fairly obvious even then, so I invited them to respond to the questions as thoughtfully and honestly as possible. The only point of participating was to establish a degree of awareness of actual personal behavior and alternatives, and in some cases, as clarification and reinforcement for those who were already on the path.

So let’s see how far we’ve come in 30 years.

Before you start:

A couple of things to keep in mind: This instrument was originally developed for beginning teachers, most of them in elementary placements with a few student teachers in a middle school. It was designed only to assess issues and practices related to gender discrimination. It does not attempt to examine other areas vulnerable to bias and discrimination, including race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, body size or physical characteristics, disabilities, learning differences, or other areas also worthy of investigation.

I have made very few changes to the document other than occasionally updating technology and language. Other than a few questions that are geared to working with younger children, this instrument is adaptable and useable in a middle school and high school environment. Likewise, aside from a few questions that are teacher specific, this instrument is adaptable and useable for parents and caregivers, as well as individuals working with youth in sports, after-school programs, and non-school settings.

It is my sincere hope that assessments like these become completely unnecessary. In the meantime, use it as a mirror to examine patterns in your language, attitudes, expectations, and behaviors. If you would prefer a copy of this document in PDF format to print out or duplicate, click here. The PDF also includes the scoring and rationale section, as well as the discussion that follows on this page.

Gender Stereotyping Survey: Self-Assessment

© 1981, 2013, Jane Bluestein, Ph.D.

Part A: Language

1. Which expression do you most frequently use?

___ mail carrier
___ mailman

___ chair, chairperson
___ chairman

___ police officer
___ policeman

___ police officer
___ policewoman

___ fire fighter
___ fireman

___ salesperson
___ salesman

___ salesperson
___ salesgirl, saleslady

___ weather forecaster, meteorologist
___ weatherman

___ flight attendant
___ stewardess, steward

___ doctor
___ lady doctor

2a. Have you ever represented what were once traditionally male occupations, such as doctor, astronaut, carpenter, pilot, dentist, etc. with females (or males AND females), either in pictures, examples, or by association with the pronoun “she” (or “he or she”)?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

2b. Have you ever represented what were once traditionally female occupations, such as teacher, secretary, nurse, waitress, etc., with males (or males AND females), either in pictures, examples, or by association with the pronoun “he” (or “he or she”)?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

3a. How do you most frequently refer to or label an adult male (over age 21)?

___ boy
___ guy
___ man

3b. How do you most frequently refer to or label an adult female (over age 21)?

___ girl
___ lady
___ woman

4. Which of the titles do you teach or use?

___ Mr.
___ Mrs.
___ Miss
___ Ms. to refer to any female (regardless of marital status)
___ Ms. as an abbreviation for Miss

5a. How often do you use the words “masculine” or “feminine”?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

5b. How often do you say things like “Act like a lady” or “Act like a gentleman”?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

Part B: Modeling

6a. How often have you allowed or denied special privileges because of gender? (Example: “Ladies/Girls first” or “Girls sit in the chairs, boys can sit on the floor or tables.”)

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

6b. How often have you lined students up in boys’ and girls’ lines to go somewhere beside the bathroom?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

6c. How often have you grouped girls and boys separately for some activity beside the bathroom?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

6d. How often have you purchased or grouped materials such as books, games, or manipulatives separately for girls and boys based on content and anticipated interest?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

6e. How often have you purchased or grouped toys and recreational materials separately for girls and boys based on anticipated interest and/or ability?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

7a. How often have you deliberately recognized the role and contribution of women throughout history?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

7b. How often have you deliberately constructed examples that assign both men and women to a variety of roles (such as active, nurturing, ambitious, technical, creative, or scientific, for example) or careers?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

7c. How often have you deliberately drawn attention to examples of sexism or gender discrimination that exist in textbooks, trade books, or films, or on Web sites, for example, to heighten kids’ awareness?

___ frequently
___ occasionally
___ rarely or never

Using the following rating scale, tell how frequently you do each of the following for, to, or with boys and for, to, or with girls:

3- frequently               2- occasionally                1- rarely or never

8a. Shake hands, hug, make physical contact with:

___ boys
___ girls

8b. Acknowledge or compliment appearance:

___ boys
___ girls

8c. Acknowledge or compliment handwriting:

___ boys
___ girls

8d. Acknowledge or compliment strength:

___ boys
___ girls

8e. Acknowledge or compliment positive social behavior:

___ boys
___ girls

8f. Acknowledge or compliment technical abilities:

___ boys
___ girls

8g. Acknowledge or compliment general academic performance:

___ boys
___ girls

8h. Ask to help you with moving, carrying, or lifting:

___ boys
___ girls

8i. Ask to help you with grading papers, cleaning, or organizing:

___ boys
___ girls

8j. Contact parents about good behaviors:

___ boys
___ girls

8k. Contact parents about misbehavior, problems in class:

___ boys
___ girls

Part C: Expectations and Tolerances

Use the following scale to tell how you would respond (or have responded) to each of the following activity:

1- Encouraged
2- Allowed but not encouraged
3- Discouraged but occasionally tolerated
4- Forbidden and/or punished

Rate each statement separately for boys and girls:

9a. Getting out of seat in class:

___ boys
___ girls

9b. Daydreaming:

___ boys
___ girls

9c. Fidgeting:

___ boys
___ girls

9d. Playing with dolls:

___ boys
___ girls

9e. Cooking or baking:

___ boys
___ girls

9f. Playing with toy guns:

___ boys
___ girls

9g. Hitting or physical aggression toward boys:

___ boys
___ girls

9h. Hitting or physical aggression toward girls:

___ boys
___ girls

9i. Teasing, name calling, verbal aggression:

___ boys
___ girls

9j. Working with computers or other technology (when allowed):

___ boys
___ girls

9k. Dressing up, playing house, role playing:

___ boys
___ girls

9l. Sewing, knitting, weaving, crochet, needlepoint:

___ boys
___ girls

9m. Playing with cars:

___ boys
___ girls

9n. Losing things, forgetfulness:

___ boys
___ girls

9o. Getting dirty, not keeping desk (or workspace) neat:

___ boys
___ girls

9p. Swearing:

___ boys
___ girls

9q. Contact sports with boys (same age):

___ boys
___ girls

9r. Contact sports with girls (same age):

___ boys
___ girls

9s. Watching violent TV shows or movies:

___ boys
___ girls

9t. Playing non-violent video games:

___ boys
___ girls

9u. Playing violent video games:

___ boys
___ girls

9v. Talking in class:

___ boys
___ girls

9w. Expressing anger:

___ boys
___ girls

9x. Expressing love:

___ boys
___ girls

9y. Expressing fear:

___ boys
___ girls

9z. Crying, expressing sadness, loneliness, emotional pain:

___ boys
___ girls

Scoring and Rationale

Part A: Language

1. Score 5 points for each time you selected the first item in each pair.

Rationale: The first career label in each pair is more gender neutral than the second, which is more stereotypical as the second item carries an association with a particular gender. In using the more stereotypical career labels, we risk limiting aspirations (especially girls’ aspirations and their sense of career appropriateness).

2. Score 5 points for each answer of “frequently,” 3 points for each “occasionally,” and 0 points for each “rarely or never.”

Rationale: Like part 1 above, representation of careers with pictures or language carries subtle messages of appropriateness for a particular gender. If traditional stereotypes are represented exclusively, the occupation may appear appropriate for one gender only, again limiting aspirations of the other.

3. Score 5 points if the word “woman” was checked to the exclusion of other female labels. Score 2 points for choosing “girl” ONLY if you also checked “boy” to the exclusion of other male labels.

Rationale: The word “woman,” like “man,” connotes adulthood by definition, and maturity, competence, and independence by implication. Using “girl” as a female equivalent of “man” implies a lesser degree of the above characteristics in the female than in the male. (Think of Ted introducing the librarian as “the little girl who took Debbie’s place.” I’ve often wondered how he would feel being introduced as “the little boy who teaches math.” While this reference was in no way intentionally demeaning or malicious, there are subtle messages and expectations conveyed in even innocent statements like these.) The term “lady” is subtly loaded with values and implications about behavioral expectations for females and is therefore a less desirable label. Note that other common references to females were omitted as being demeaning and vulgar.

4. Score 5 points if you teach all titles, including “Ms.” as long as it is explained as a label for females that is non-dependent upon marital status. Score 2 points if you teach “Ms.” as an abbreviation for Miss.

Rationale: “Ms.” was developed as a non-discriminatory label for females. “Ms.” may be used for married or unmarried females. Although frequently explained (and used) as an abbreviation for Miss, this practice misses the point of having a non-discriminatory label where one must be used. Since “Mrs.” and “Miss” still have great visibility in the media and are preferred by some individuals, it is reasonable to teach and use these labels as well.

5. Score 5 points for each “rarely or never,” 3 points for each “occasionally,” and 0 points for each “frequently.”

Rationale: By definition, the words “masculine” and “feminine” generally carry implications of stereotypical characteristics such as “strong and mannish” or “gentle and delicate” (according to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language). Even contemporary online dictionaries include references to “strength and aggressiveness” in the definition for “masculine,” and “delicacy and prettiness” in the definition for “feminine.” These words tend to promote stereotypes and imply traditional gender qualities.

Part B: Modeling

6. Score 5 points for each “rarely or never,” 3 points for each “occasionally,” and 0 points for each “frequently.”

Rationale: Most of the activities listed in this section represent a form of gender bias known as fragmentation or isolation. In these instances, students are arbitrarily separated for various activities and materials are separated according to interests and abilities the adult assumes and/or promotes for each gender. These kinds of assumptions are based on stereotypes which categorize boys and girls separately. (What message do children get when they are restricted from certain activities or the use of certain materials they would enjoy simply on the basis of gender?)

7. Score 5 points for each “frequently,” 3 points for each “occasionally,” and 0 points for each “rarely or never.”

Rationale: Helping students grow in their awareness of various forms of gender discrimination also may help to free them to develop their own values and goals without being restricted by traditional expectations and limitations. Deliberately recognizing and including the mention of women in various teaching strategies helps students to see competence and worth as non-gender-specific in a variety of roles. Please note the danger, however, in teaching about women as separate, isolated, and fragmented from the mainstream of writers, scientists, inventors, sports figures, or artists, for example.

8. Score 5 points for each item for which you marked boys and girls with THE SAME rating, regardless of what that rating was.

Rationale: All teachers differ in their ability to express feelings, acknowledge positive behaviors, or even ask for help. Therefore, this instrument is less interested in the specific frequency noted for each question as it is in the similarities and differences in adult behavior toward boys and toward girls. If there is a difference between the frequency of behaviors toward one gender or the other, the adult is probably responding to and reinforcing traditional stereotypes and expectations.

Part C: Expectations

9. Score 5 points for each item for which you marked boys and girls with THE SAME rating, regardless of what that rating was.

Rationale: As in the last section, particular tolerances will differ from one teacher to the next. The focus here is the tendency to have different or similar expectations and tolerances for boys and girls for the same behavior. Students can pick up some strong messages about gender-appropriateness of particular behaviors, especially in instances in which one gender can get away with a behavior and the other cannot. Adults who discourage boys from an activity in which girls are encouraged to participate (or vice versa) are most likely limiting student growth and aspirations through gender discrimination.

Discussion

The total possible score is 305 points. On a continuum of 0 to 305 points, clearly the closer your score is to 305, the less likely you are guilty of gender discrimination. If your score is high, I suspect you were either raised in a culture that encouraged gender equity or have put considerable effort into becoming conscious of discriminatory practices and patterns, and to overcoming them in your own behavioral repertoire.

If your score is closer to 0, you’re in good company. You certainly didn’t develop your values and habits in a vacuum and most people have had some very strong models for gender stereotypes. Although many of these patterns are changing (think of gender and ethnic representation in the media that never existed when this survey was first developed), bias can be incredibly stubborn and changes can take a while to appear in generic behavior and the cultural psyche.

Beliefs, behaviors, and bias are not likely to change, however, without an awareness of their existence and the potential damage they can do. This is just the first step, and the entire point of this survey is to help individuals identify patterns in their own behavior and belief of which they may not have been entirely aware. There is no judgment here. Just know that any choice has potential consequences, and hopefully this instrument has made the likely outcomes of our choices a little more evident.

Start noticing language and behavior pattens in the people you work with, live with, hang out with, examples in the media (check out some of the shows filmed in the US about 40 or 50 years ago), examples in advertising. Pay attention to judgments you may be making, consciously or unconsciously, when you see men or women acting, dressing, or choosing careers that don’t seem to fit your expectations. Although legislation over the past few decades has attempted to limit discriminatory policies in pay, promotion, job eligibility, sports funding, or access to programs and services, start noticing discrepancies in places where these intentions have not quite caught up.

Assuming you are willing to acknowledge the limiting and demeaning nature of gender discrimination (to both genders) and wish to improve your track record, the next phase after awareness involves goal-setting and a commitment to change. Record your instruction or interactions, or if you’re truly brave (and have someone in your setting you can truly trust), ask to be observed with the intention of spotting instances in which you practice gender-equitable behavior, language, and attitudes, or examples of possible discrimination. Select one expression you’d like to drop from your vocabulary, one expectation you’re willing to change.

And then practice. It may take a while to overcome the initial awkwardness of saying “firefighter” or of consciously inviting both male and female students to run errands or carry a ream of paper across the hall. But don’t be surprise if somewhere down the line, you’ll remember the story at the start of this post and the thought of hearing a 30-year-old professional educator referred to as a “little girl” generates downright outrage.

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