At least in the US, educators believe that gender differences have been successfully addressed and no longer exist. Lee Shumow and Jennifer Schmidt explored teacher classroom behaviour and its impact on students’ decisions to pursue science studies. In their own research, they found the opposite – while teachers explicitly believed there to be no gender differences, their implicit beliefs were gender biased, as were their classroom interactions with boys and girls. I’ve written more in another blog.

So awareness is the first step for teachers, schools and teacher educators. Developments in neuroscience research explain how our unconscious thoughts affect our actions, and create gender bias. This growing awareness is being gradually incorporated into information and training programs.

Surfacing unconscious associations, which may directly contradict consciously, even strongly, held beliefs is necessary, can be challenging, and is a good place to start. Teacher education should include this training, as should schools and teacher education bodies.

Individual teachers can assess their own unconscious beliefs at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. This is a simple, 10 minute online test of unconscious beliefs. When I took this test a number of years ago, I found that despite being an advocate of gender equity, my unconscious beliefs were biased in traditional ways. Knowing this created a new level of awareness and motivated me to think more critically about my actions and decisions. Here’s more on how to minimize unconscious bias.

Awareness is enough of a catalyst for some people to change their practices quite dramatically.

Where that’s not enough, schools and teacher educators can focus on making teacher classroom behaviour transparent. Monitoring teacher classroom interactions with students and providing them with feedback on time spent responding to male versus female students, and the nature of the responses (including messages regarding competence) helps identify bias. In science classrooms, teachers spend more time interacting with boys, provide them with more information about their competence and are more encouraging, and this affects career choices of equally talented boys and girls. Again, this kind of transparency can be pretty motivating. If it’s not, teacher performance standards might encourage more balanced engagement across genders.

Many businesses have introduced targets to guide manager behaviour. In a school environment, targets for the number of girls who pursue science-based study streams, who graduate with particular grades in science subjects, or who enrol in STEM-based degrees are examples of specific actions that can be considered. My blogs on ‘Why so few women in science’ and ‘Five steps for minimizing unconscious bias’ provide a few more suggestions that might be translated into a school context.

Photo credit: Back to school Phil Roeder Flickr CC

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