Experts say gender roles are taught in our classrooms

Students at the Santa Fe Girls School — an all-girls middle school founded in 1998. Courtesy photo

This is how gender expert and author Allyson Jule sees the difference between how educators treat boys and girls in the classroom:

“If a teacher asked the question, ‘What’s the capital city of Canada?’ and … a girl replied, ‘Ottawa,’ the teacher would say, ‘Yes,’ ” she said.

“And if the same thing happened but it was a boy who responded … and says, ‘Ottawa,’ the teacher would say something more like, ‘Yes. People think it’s Toronto or even Montreal, but it’s not, it’s Ottawa, you’re right,’ and in that affirmation … the amount of language used in response to the boys was ten times more.”

Jule is professor of education and co-director of the Gender Studies Institute at Trinity Western University and author of Gender, Participation and Silence in the Language Classroom: Sh-shushing the Girls. Her story speaks to the not-so-subtle differences in attitude that educators may take with girls and boys.

Studies, including Columbia University’s “Gender Issues in the College Classroom,” have found that instructors often call on male students more frequently than female students, use male students’ names when calling on them and reference their ideas later in the discussion. Additionally, instructors ask male students “abstract questions” and female students more “factual questions,” and are less likely to elaborate on the ideas offered by female students. The findings reveal how male students tend to blurt out answers without raising their hands or being prompted, while female students are more often interrupted as they try to answer or speak — by both male or female students.

Jule said teachers tended to address boys by their names — “ ‘Ryan, be quiet!” while female students often hear a collective, “Girls, shhhhh!’ ” That may not be a deliberate or conscious effort on the part of the teacher, she said, but it was an enactment of different assumptions we hold in our society about which gender gets the attention. “It’s subtle, but it rehearses our boys into a certain kind of role, and it rehearses our girls into a different kind of role,” Jule said in an interview with Generation Next.

The roles that girls are carefully rehearsed into are often deferential ones, and as a result, there is a significant absence of women’s voices in the professional and academic spheres. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of multiple books including, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, finds that female students tend to speak briefly and quietly, and present their input in a more tentative, indirect or “polite” manner. They often use “I” statements (“I guess …” “I was wondering if …”), qualify their statements (“maybe,” “perhaps”) and apologize for their responses (“I may be wrong, but …”).

Tannen said female students tend to ask questions rather than answer them, even if they know an answer, and when they do provide statements, they often add questions at the end (“… isn’t it?” “… don’t you think?”).

Anna Lipmann, a senior at Santa Fe Prep, said she has witnessed female students acting with diffidence and hesitation “all the time. I do it too, and it’s kind of like a buffer zone. It cushions the blow if you get it wrong, and I never notice guys doing that.”

What else do the experts notice? Jule said it is difficult for girls to speak in a climate where boys take up more “linguistic space,” which she defines as “the number of words spoken.” Tannen said that male students tend to answer questions at length and with assertiveness whereas girls try to be succinct and soft-spoken.

One strategy to combat the amount of linguistic space students take up is to limit the number of responses permitted from each student. “When girls and boys talk equally, people tend to get the impression that girls have talked more,” Tannen said.

Tannen said many people believe that boys are acting like “bullies” who purposefully take over classrooms. But in reality, she said, they are simply “talking in ways that seem self-evidently appropriate to them.” From their point of view, if girls aren’t talking, that is their choice, and therefore boys are merely filling the silence in the room.

However, when in single-sex classes, research reveals that girls can flourish academically and socially. The value of same-sex education is a frequently debated topic and often a polemical one. The American Civil Liberties Union has advocated for an end to separating boys and girls in public schools, claiming, “Sex-segregated classes and schools deprive students of important preparation for the real, co-educational worlds of work and family.” The ACLU launched a “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign to gain information about same-sex education across the nation. Their findings said that same-sex education does not comply with the legal requirements of the federal Title IX guidelines, which prohibit sexual discrimination in the classroom.

Lee Lewin, founder and program director of the Santa Fe Girls School — an all-girls middle school founded in 1998 — and Darya Glass, a math and history teacher at that school, both said that in a single-gender middle school, “Girls are more likely to take the intellectual and emotional risks associated with speaking about what they are thinking, and to engage in discussions. … This leads to development of a personal voice and confidence in expressing ideas.”

When these skills are practiced for several years, “it becomes internalized,” Glass said. Although girls schools may be perceived as sheltered environments, same-sex education provides girls with an environment of what Lewin and Glass call “safe space” to develop confidence, awareness and communication skills. Over time, they don’t need that safe space anymore and can adapt to larger, mixed-gender environments.

Madonna Hernandez, director of programs at the nonprofit Girls Inc., said that, “In an all-female environment, they feel that they can stand up and speak up … for what they want to do,” which is a critical life skill.

Regardless of whether students learn in a same-sex or co-educational environment, “What we’re doing in schools is both reflecting society but it’s also rehearsing our behaviors,” Jule said. “And if we’re not really conscious … as teachers that we’re doing that, then we’re only reproducing the inconsistencies. And the inequities.”

Sydney Pope is a junior at Santa Fe Prep. Contact her at

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